Monday, March 28, 2011

Deploying Extra Power for Japan

Just over two weeks after the earthquake near Sendai in northeastern Japan, which I'm increasingly seeing referred to as the "Great Tohoku Earthquake", the impact of the resulting disruption to various supply chains is being felt around the world. From car factories in Europe that rely on Japanese electronic components to producers of flat-panel displays and solar cells, several industries are feeling the pinch. This appears to be due more to the reduction in Japan's electricity-generation capacity than from actual damage to factories in the zone most affected by the disaster. With more power plants than just the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex affected, the scale and potential duration of electricity shortages could result in a significant increase in the demand for smaller-scale generation, both conventional and renewable.

As reported in today's Wall St. Journal, the electricity shortfall resulting from the quake and tsunami is severe and affects both consumers and businesses. The Japanese government is exploring a number of emergency measures to mitigate the problem, including increasing electricity prices, instituting Daylight Savings Time, and calling on customers to conserve power. At the same time, the government appears to understand that Japan's scope for large-scale energy-efficiency improvements is limited. With an energy intensity in BTUs per dollar of GDP already 37% lower than that of the US, only the UK among large developed countries is more efficient. Efficiency and conservation will be helpful, but they can't cover the massive shortfall Japan faces now.

One of the most detailed analyses of the impact of the quake and tsunami on Japan's electricity sector that I've seen so far suggests that as much as 15,000 MW of generating capacity in the Tokyo/Tohoku region is offline and likely to remain so for durations ranging from a few months to several years--or permanently, in the case of most of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. This is something like 20% of the pre-quake generating capacity of the two main utilities serving the region, not counting the pumped-hydro storage capacity used for meeting peak demand. As a result, that part of Japan is experiencing an electricity deficit that will likely grow as the summer peak demand months approach, and that could persist even after the least-damaged facilities return to service. Nor can surplus power from southern Japan provide much assistance, because the northern and southern systems are relatively isolated from each other, with limited interconnections, and run on different frequencies--60 cycles for the south and 50 cycles for the north. Back-up and distributed generation appears to be the only real alternative to a protracted economic slowdown caused by insufficient electricity for Japan's businesses and industries.

We've seen this pattern before, if from different and less-catastrophic causes. In the early 1990s the Philippine grid was chronically unreliable, and many businesses bought or leased diesel generators to fill the gap, including barge-mounted units that could be brought in quickly and moved around coastlines and rivers as demand shifted. More recently, diesel demand in China increased substantially in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, as the central government idled large, dirty power plants in order to reduce air pollution, and a number of factories chose to generate their own power, rather than shutting down.

For Japanese factories and other businesses facing the same dilemma, cost is unlikely to be the major factor in deciding whether or not to become more energy self-sufficient. Factory managers can often justify paying a lot more for power if their only other option is to slow production or shut down. They have several choices available, including some renewable power options, and I expect to see a surge in solar power installations. However, that's probably a better medium-term rather than short-term option, not just because the entire world didn't install enough solar panels last year to make up for the lost output of the Japanese nuclear plants, but because while solar can help with supply, it can't provide the reliability that is crucial right now. That makes diesel generation the leading contender to backstop Japan's idled power plants in the short term.

I can't speak to the availability of diesel generators, although I can easily envision suppliers and leasing agents scrambling to meet frantic Japanese orders. However, if enough generators are available to cover even 3,000 MW of the shortfall, running just half the time, they would require around 65,000 barrels per day of incremental diesel fuel, or roughly the entire diesel output of a medium-sized refinery. Whether that represented an increase in overall Japanese diesel consumption requiring additional imports would depend on the extent of the other economic consequences of the Tohoku disaster, and on when Japan's refineries return to normal operations.

So the use of diesel generators to make up for damaged or otherwise unavailable generating capacity in Japan could provide another modest boost to global oil demand, which already appears to have exceeded the record level set prior to the recession and financial crisis. And since much of that increased demand is for diesel, rather than gasoline, the impact of Japanese generation needs could affect diesel prices disproportionally. As a result, consumers around the world could see diesel prices rise, as the ripples from the events in Japan spread.

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