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Japan faces prolonged energy crunch

Lights off as 'Earth Hour' circles the globe
Paris (AFP) March 26, 2011 - Lights went off around the world Saturday as landmark buildings and ordinary homes flipped their switches while the annual "Earth Hour" circled the planet in what was dubbed the world's largest voluntary action for the environment. In Paris a minute's silence was observed for Japan as the city of light went dark, with illuminations switched off at the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame cathedral, City Hall, opera houses and many bridges, fountains and public places. Sydney's Opera House was the first of many global landmarks to go dark as the event got under way, as hundreds of millions of people prepared to follow suit to enhance awareness of energy use and climate change. Others in their turn included Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium that hosted the 2008 Olympics, the London Eye ferris wheel, Times Square in New York and Brazil's Christ the Redeemer statue.

Many were switching off their floodlighting, advertising signs and other illuminations for an hour from 8:30 pm local time. "The amount of power that's saved during that time is not really what it's about," Earth Hour co-founder and executive director Andy Ridley told AFP in Sydney, where the movement began in 2007. "What it is meant to be about is showing what can happen when people come together." Ridley said a record 134 countries or territories were on board for this year's event. Organisers also asked people to commit to an action, large or small, that they will carry through the year to help the planet. Ridley said Earth Hour, organised by global environment group the WWF, this year would also focus on connecting people online so they could inspire each other to make commitments to help protect the environment.

In Australia, organisers said an estimated 10 million people, nearly half the population, took part, with Sydney Harbour Bridge another of the landmarks to go dark. Hong Kong's neon waterfront dimmed, while in Singapore all decorative lights were switched off and non-critical operational lights lowered at Changi Airport for an hour. In Japan, which is reeling from a huge earthquake and tsunami that struck this month, several thousand people and a hotel-turned-evacuation centre in the northeast marked Earth Hour. "People in Japan will have a special feeling this year when they turn the switches off," WWF spokeswoman Hideko Arai told AFP ahead of the switch-off.

In Russia some 30 cities were joining in, from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the most easterly city on the Kamchatka peninsula, through Moscow to Murmansk in the far north. Moscow was to turn off floodlighting on more than 70 buildings and bridges, including the 540-metre (1,780-foot) television tower and the 32-storey Moscow State University building. In Athens monuments being darkened included the Acropolis, the parliament building, the presidential palace and the temple of Poseidon near the city. Lights went out in 52 Romanian cities, where concerts and candle-light marches were organised. In Bucharest, dozens of people cycled through the city centre before gathering in George Enescu square.
by Staff Writers
Osaka (AFP) March 25, 2011
Disaster-struck Japan is bracing for months of energy shortages that could curb factory production and force households and workers to sweat out the humid summer with little or no air conditioning.

The world's number three economy, which endures 20 percent of all major earthquakes, generates about 30 percent of its power from nuclear plants.

The record 9.0-magnitude tremor and monster wave which battered Japan's northeast coast on March 11 prompted 11 of Japan's 55 nuclear reactors to automatically shut down and triggered a major crisis at a plant in Fukushima.

The nuclear problems are causing "serious constraints on the supply of electricity", so managed blackouts are likely to continue "at least over the summer," said Credit Agricole economist Susumu Kato.

"This could give additional downside risks to economic activities that are already severely hit by the earthquake and tsunami," he wrote in a report.

The six reactors at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) plant -- three of which were operating when the quake struck -- are unlikely to ever be used again.

Three reactors were already idle at the world's largest nuclear power plant at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa on Japan's western coast due to a 2007 earthquake, and the recent disaster also damaged several thermal power plants.

As a result the region served by TEPCO faces a power supply shortfall of at least 10,000 megawatts, or about 20 percent of demand, chief government spokesman Yukio Edano told reporters on Friday.

That means Japan may have to take its annual summer "Cool Biz" campaign -- aimed at limiting the use of air conditioning and encouraging workers to ditch their jackets and ties -- to a new level.

Power outages in areas served by TEPCO since March 14 have already limited train services while major manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda have halted production and the likes of Toshiba and Sony have temporarily closed plants.

The IMF warned Thursday that sustained power shortages could threaten Japan's economic recovery prospects.

"The uncertainties from the nuclear situation and the power interruptions could weigh on the recovery by disrupting production across the country, and by weighing on corporate and household sentiment," said its Asia Pacific chief Ken Kang.

TEPCO is one of the world's largest power companies with 44.6 million customers -- more than one third of the population of Japan -- in the Kanto region of the main island of Honshu, including Tokyo.

On Friday it was able to produce 37,500 megawatts, barely enough to meet demand, and rolling blackouts are expected until the end of April.

But the real crunch could come in the hot summer months of July and August when daily consumption in its region usually jumps to 55,000 megawatts.

A TEPCO official said it was looking to boost its supply capacity to 46,500 megawatts.

It is now racing to increase electricity supply from other plants, including a thermal power station near Tokyo that had been mothballed, but experts say it might not be enough to make up the shortfall.

"The earthquake in northeastern Japan crippled about a 10th of the country's electricity generation capacity, particularly for nuclear and thermal power. Some of the damage may be beyond repair," Standard and Poor's warned.

"Japan's affected nuclear power capacity is not likely to come on stream anytime soon... Existing thermal power plants in Japan may not have sufficient excess capacity, and building new thermal capacity will take time," it said.

The problem is compounded by the fact that western Japan uses a different electric frequency than the east, limiting the amount of power than can be transferred between the two regions.

The government said Friday that it might raise utility rates and introduce daylight saving time in a bid to save power, while local media are speculating it might restart the three idle reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.

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