The government said on Friday that it aimed to avoid rolling blackouts in the region but would need to be prepared just in case, stopping short of the mandatory limits imposed last year in eastern Japan.
Concern is simmering that the potential power shortages - the extent of which is a matter of heated debate - could undermine a recovery in the world's third-biggest economy and hasten manufacturers' moves to shift factories overseas to avoid high production costs and an uncertain electricity supply. Japan's utilities have been struggling to secure stable power supplies because of widespread anti-nuclear sentiment after last year's massive earthquake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, triggering meltdowns that caused widespread contamination and forced mass evacuations.
Customers of Kansai Electric Power, based in Osaka, western Japan, will be asked to cut usage by at least 15 percent. The utility has projected a 14.9 percent shortfall in August, the worst among the nine utilities that have nuclear plants. Critics, however, have questioned Kansai Electric's forecasts, suspecting it is exaggerating potential shortages to strengthen the argument for restarting offline reactors. More than a year after Fukushima, the government has yet to finalize a revamp of an energy mix programme that had called for boosting nuclear power above 50 percent of electricity supply from about 30 percent before the crisis, with options ranging from zero to 35 percent by 2030.
If western Japan survives the summer with no major glitches despite the lack of atomic energy, that would "encourage people to be more confident we can phase out nuclear power," said Hiroshi Takahashi, a research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute who is a member of an advisory panel on energy policy. Kansai's service area, home to many manufacturers including struggling electronics giants Panasonic Corp and Sharp Corp, had relied on nuclear power for nearly half its electricity before the Fukushima disaster, the highest ratio anywhere in Japan. Many big companies in the region have said they can manage with power saving steps.
Daikin Industries, a major producer of commercial air conditioners, plans to shift working hours this summer for some of its development teams so they are working nights and holidays, to avoid peak-demand hours. The Osaka-based company has also invested in its own generation capacity and has said it can meet a 15-percent reduction in demand without any impact on its results. Osaka-based Sumitomo Electric Industries has invested 1.5 billion yen ($18.8 million) to build a cogeneration system that captures secondary heat energy from a thermal power plant. The wire-harness maker, which sells its products to the auto and telecommunications industries, expects to cut its power consumption in peak-demand hours by 20 percent this summer compared with 2010.
The government sought voluntary cuts of 5 percent or more by three other utilities based in central and western Japan - Chubu Electric, Hokuriku Electric and Chugoku Electric - and 7 percent or more by Shikoku Electric , so they would have spare power to transfer to strapped Kansai Electric and Kyushu Electric Power in the south. Kyushu Electric Power's customers are being asked to cut power use by 10 percent or more, while northernmost utility Hokkaido Electric Power's service area has been urged to make cuts of at least 7 percent. The reduction targets are compared to usage levels in 2010, when Japan suffered record high summer temperatures.
Industry minister Yukio Edano and other officials have been trying to win the support of local communities to reactivate two idled reactors at Kansai Electric's Ohi nuclear power plant. Ohi and the rest of Japan's nuclear plants have steadily been taken offline over the past 14 months for routine maintenance, and public concerns over nuclear safety have prevented any restarts.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said on Thursday he would soon decide whether the two Ohi reactors could resume operations. "In the end, under my leadership, four ministers will make the decision, and that timing is near," Noda told public broadcaster NHK. But the government faces an uphill battle in the face of public concern, especially in communities that are close enough to the reactors to share the risk if an accident occurs but too far away to reap the economic benefits of jobs and subsidies that host communities have obtained. No power saving target was set for areas served by Tokyo Electric Power - operator of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant - or for Tohoku Electric, since those areas are expected to more than meet demand by firing up thermal plants.