The Japanese tsunami impacts everything, from cars to toilet paper. Most Japanese car makers were closed since after the catastrophe and will remain closed at least until mid April. Many paper mills are in the affected area, and all paper, from glossy stock to the softer kind, is in short supply. Publishers of Japanese illustrated pulp fiction have canceled the printed version and direct their readers to the Internet instead. Tokyo corporations battle a wave of toilet rolls vanishing from their restrooms, from where they find a way to the toire at home. While these may be temporary outages, the lack of stable electrical power emerges more and more as the biggest impediment to the recovery of the Japanese industry. It will affect you and your car, in one way or the other.
Bloomberg figures that “the earthquake and tsunami destroyed 21 million kilowatts of electrical generating capacity, or about the amount that would be generated by 10 Hoover Dams.”
Last weekend’s Heard on the Street column in the Wall Street Journal puts it more succinctly:
“The region around Tokyo, which accounts for 40% of the nation’s economy, most of Japan Inc.’s head offices and a third of the population, can barely meet peak demand now. In the event of a hot summer, there may only be enough electricity to supply three-quarters of demand. Shortfalls could last months, or years.“
A handy graph, based on data supplied by troubled TEPCO, shows only four out of 17 nuclear reactors producing power. Two of the four are scheduled to be brought down for maintenance in August.
It could be a long time until the shut reactors come back up. “Four years after a 2007 quake, three of seven reactors in the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. still aren’t generating power,” says the Journal.
In this odd twist of fate, electric power, hailed as the savior of the automotive industry, is bringing the industry to its knees. Stable power is essential for the making of many products, from castings to copper foil for printed circuit boards. There are a lot of those in a car, populated by many chips. Chips need stable power even more. Writes Hans Greimel in Plastic News:
“And because the worst-hit suppliers are in the electronics and chip-making sectors, getting them back up to speed is a big hurdle. Vehicle assembly lines are relatively easy to stop and restart, but chip-making equipment is far more sensitive and can get really messed up by an unscheduled shutdown.
After those lines stop it can take up to three days to recalibrate them. And the restart process must begin again from scratch if it is interrupted by a power outage or aftershock — both of which continue to plague Japan. Simply scheduling a sustained restart around the blackouts is hard.”
Also, now we know why the plans of voluntary shutdowns — say Toyota on Monday, Nissan on Tuesday, Wednesday is Honda day – were a non-starter, and why Japan’s majors vehemently denied such plans: This kind of industry coordination would be against the law.
Negotiated shutdowns “could be deemed as forming a cartel to adjust production volume, banned under the Anti-Monopoly Law,” writes The Nikkei [sub].
Even setting the thermostat of the office A/C to more moderate degrees could collide with labor laws or building maintenance regulations.
According to The Nikkei, the Japanese government will ask its industry watchdog, the Japan Fair Trade Commission, to lie down for a while. The government will also temporarily revise ordinances setting enforcement rules. With this in place, the industry can finally sit down and come to a sensible power-sharing arrangement.
Another step is to allow companies to set up their own power generation. Currently, “installing power generation equipment in open spaces on a company’s premises could breach land usage and air pollution laws,” says The Nikkei.
The Japanese government is expected to ease enforcement rules and to allow the installation of generators.
Speaking of generators: There aree none to be had in Japan.
Distributors were sold out three days after the quake. Now, genset makers are scrambling for – parts.
According to the Bloomberg report, “Honda has secured enough parts to partially resume production of large generators at a factory in Kumamoto, southwest Japan, though the company doesn’t know how long it may take to start making portable units.”