日期:2011-09-23 11:17


Energy in Japan

Bright ideas needed

Japan’s power monopolies raise costs and stifle innovation

Sep 17th 2011 | TOKYO | from the print edition

THE corridors were dark, the air uncomfortably hot. The lights at the headquarters of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) were largely switched off; the air-conditioners were turned down. Even the chief executive, Toshio Nishizawa, had removed his tie for an interview on September 5th. In normal times, that would be a glaring breach of Japanese corporate etiquette, but these are not normal times.

走廊伸手不见十指,空气燥热难忍。东京电力总部,几乎没几盏灯亮着,空调冷气也已调小。9月5日接受采访时,东电首席执行官Toshio Nishizawa甚至都未系领带。这要放在平时,显然就是公然违背日本公司礼仪。但如今绝非“平时”。

Since the earthquake and tsunami of March 11th, most nuclear reactors in Japan have been shut down for maintenance and not restarted: 43 out of 54 remain idle. There has been a national drive for setsuden (conserving energy). TEPCO must be seen to share the pain.


The company is staggeringly unpopular. One of its nuclear plants at Fukushima was damaged on March 11th. In the crucial hours after the tsunami, TEPCO failed to add water to cool the reactor cores. It was unable to restore steady back-up power until days later and inexplicably delayed venting a build-up of pressure that eventually led to hydrogen explosions.


As if that were not bad enough, TEPCO withheld information from everyone, including the then prime minister, Naoto Kan, who stormed into its headquarters yelling: “What the hell is going on?” A meltdown began several hours after the tsunami struck, but wasn’t officially disclosed until nine weeks later. “We have lost trust,” admits Mr Nishizawa. Regaining it will take “a long, long time”, he adds.

东电貌似觉得这还不够惨,竟而还对外封锁消息,连时任首相菅直人都被蒙在鼓里,菅直人冲进东电总部吼道:“到底怎么回事?”海啸来袭数小时之后,反应堆炉心就已融毁,但直到9个礼拜后东电才正式披露消息。Toshio Nishizawa也承认东电已失去公众信任,并表示重获信任,绝不是一朝一夕的事情。

Asked whether the reactor was damaged by the quake itself (as distinct from the tsunami that followed it), Mr Nishizawa says it is unclear: we must wait for a report in November. This question matters. If the reactors in quake-prone Japan are not quake-proof, nuclear power may not be safe. An official at a nuclear regulator says there is evidence that the quake did indeed damage the reactor.

对于‘地震是否为摧毁反应堆元凶’这个问题(与随后的海啸损害不同),Toshio Nishizawa的回答是“不清楚”,说要等到11月报告出台后,方才清楚。地震是不是元凶这个问题至关重要。日本这么一个地震频发的国家,倘若反应堆不抗震,那么核能也许就不安全。核能监管部门的一名官员表示,有证据表明的确是地震摧毁了反应堆。

Since the disaster, Japanese people have made heroic efforts to save energy. Households snuffed out lights and unplugged their heated toilet seats. Big companies reduced their energy use by 15% (on pain of fines). Many began the workday earlier or switched to night shifts. The car industry took Thursdays and Fridays off and toiled at weekends, when electricity demand is lower. In TEPCO’s region (around Tokyo), peak usage fell to 49 gigawatts, from 60 gigawatts last year. Everyone expected blackouts; none occurred. On September 9th, as the summer’s heat faded, the government announced an end to setsuden.


Yet Japan’s energy problems are far from resolved. If the nuclear freeze lasts for a year, it will cut GDP by an estimated 3.6% and destroy almost 200,000 jobs. Meanwhile, three-fifths of the public say they have little confidence in nuclear power.


Japan needs a robust and diverse energy industry. Instead it has ten regional monopolies (TEPCO is one), which hog 97% of the market for electricity generation and transmission. Residential consumers pay nearly twice as much as Americans and three times as much as South Koreans (see chart). After modest deregulation began for big commercial users a decade ago, prices plummeted by 16% between 1999 and 2005. Yet lacking political support, the reforms went into reverse.


Electricity prices are high because the monopolies have little incentive to cut costs. On the contrary, their profit margins are fixed by the government, so if they inflate their costs, they boost their income. At the same time, the utilities charge residential consumers a flat rate, giving them no incentive to run appliances during off-peak hours. Alternative energy gets short shrift. Although Japanese firms are leaders in green technologies such as wind, solar and geothermal, these sources account for only 1% of all power generation.


TEPCO’s influence is vast. It supports politicians from one party; its union supports their rivals. It finances academic research on energy. It takes hacks on junkets. And last year it spent ¥26 billion ($339m) on advertising and promotion—a fortune for a firm with no serious competitors.


Reformers urge the break-up of Japan’s power monopolies. Separating generation from transmission and opening the door to new entrants would raise efficiency and reduce costs. However, Keidanren, the lobby for big business, opposes deregulation on the ground that TEPCO and its ilk ensure a stable supply of electricity. Several Keidanren members sell parts and services to the power monopolies, and receive steep discounts on the power they use.


Many politicians believe that TEPCO must be preserved so it can compensate the victims of the nuclear accident at Fukushima. A law governing compensation was approved by the Diet on August 3rd. It creates a mechanism to collect funds from TEPCO and other power firms but fails to specify how the costs will be shared. On September 12th TEPCO sent out forms for evacuees to fill in. These are 60 pages long.


The new government of Yoshihiko Noda wants to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power in the medium term, but hopes to restart idle reactors in the meantime. Without cheap, reliable power, businesses may move abroad.


New firms are clamouring to enter the energy business. Masayoshi Son, a wireless tycoon, plans to build huge solar-power stations and a new grid to connect Japanese prefectures. But the regulatory process is a nightmare, he says. A new law on green energy gives few clues as to how new producers can sell power to the grid, or whether the incumbents have to buy it. Not even an earthquake, it seems, can shake the monopolists’ grip.

新企业吵着要开进能源产业。无线巨头Masayoshi Son打算兴建大型太阳能发电站,并计划新开通一条输电网,连通日本各县。但他表示,规章程序好比噩梦一场。新出台的绿色能源法案几乎未说明,新发电商通过何种渠道向电网出售电力,也未说明现在的电力供应企业是否要购买新能源电力。似乎即便是地震也无法撼动垄断集团的铁爪。

  • fundsn. 基金;资金,现金(fund的复数) v. 提供资金
  • specifyv. 指定,阐述,详细说明
  • alternativeadj. 两者择一的; 供选择的; 非主流的 n. 替换
  • breachn. 裂口,破坏,违背,(浪的)冲击,决裂 vt. 违反
  • academicadj. 学术的,学院的,理论的 n. 大学教师,
  • primeadj. 最初的,首要的,最好的,典型的 n. 青春,壮
  • eventuallyadv. 终于,最后
  • pressuren. 压力,压强,压迫 v. 施压
  • reliancen. 信赖,所信赖的人或物
  • restorevt. 恢复,修复,使复原