By on April 4, 2011

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.”

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21 Comments on “Lack Of Stable Power Brings Japan’s Industry To Its Knees...”

  • avatar

    Bertel, your reporting is in depth and your intelligent writing penetrates the issues. TTAC is lucky to have you and so are we.  jd

  • avatar

    It would seem that imports could take care of most of the shortages at the consumer level. 
    They need some loosening up of regulations and fast.    

    I don’t think it is critical to get heavy industry up and running right away.
    That includes auto manufacturing. They already have offshore manufacturing.
    Japan domestic auto manufacturing can be brought back online in stages.

    That will free up power so they can focus on the suppliers that are not redundant.

  • avatar

    Imports of what? Of power? Via that huge black undersea cable that connects Japan with North Korea?

    • 0 avatar

      Of power?

      They do make mobile floating power barges you know.

    • 0 avatar

      Must they make their own paper now? Do they need a Japanese generator?
      These are the kind of imports that could reduce the stress on the power grid.
      Then Japan can bring things back on line as they understand the capacity of a new balanced power grid.

      BTW… Bertel, your Japan coverage and analysisi related to industry has been excellent.

    • 0 avatar

      Those floating power barges (they makes some for the gasification of LNG also) are sold out. If you order one, you will get it in two years.

  • avatar

    Another great update in a continuing stream of useful information. This certainly beats the garbage TV and radio report on here. Snooki or Charlie Sheen updates, anyone? Not here!

    I was under the impression that Japan didn’t do much auto manufacturing anymore. I guess I was wrong, but that’s what I had garnered from TTAC in recent months.

    As far as basic needs shortages, American manufacturers need to get into overdrive and sieze this opportunity to supply Japan with these basic needs. It’s tragic enough that so many have been killed and died and the loss of housing, industry, utilities and radiation, but things seem to be cascading downward for a large part of Japan with the lack of basic necessities.

    No toilet paper? Laugh if you want, but this could lead to a sanitation issue down the road. Why? I don’t know how their sewage system is designed, but ours cannot, or wasn’t designed to handle paper products that don’t quickly disintergrate like toilet paper, which is manufactured to do so. A little problem that can turn serious pretty fast.

  • avatar

    Does Japan use bidets or is that a European thing?  Oh duh – no running water = no bidets.  In the Gulf War, I got by with the little MRE TP packs or scratch paper or…nothing at all.  I felt so filthy with a nasty ass.  Whenever I wrote (this was before the internet or widespread cell phones like today) home and asked for TP, the response was usually bemusement and surprise that “they” didn’t take care of that.  What really WAS a problem in ’90-91 was the lack of feminine supplies out in the field for the WMs – Women Marines.

    My grandfather used to tell me about using sticks, leaves, corncobs, etc when he was a boy, but he lived out in the country.  Of course in a crowded urban environment…

    • 0 avatar

      “My grandfather used to tell me about using sticks, leaves, corncobs, etc when he was a boy, but he lived out in the country.”

      Absolutely. Especially corncobs. Stuff like that gets laughs, but unless you lived in those circumstances, it’s quite serious. Preparation H wasn’t invented yet, either. My mother told the same stories when she lived in rural Missouri for several years on a farm in the early years of the 20th century just after WW1. Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs work well, too. “Ya gotta do what ya gotta do!”

      Of course, all this is fine in an individual situation, but in a more populated circumstance, proper hygeine gets serious real fast. Cholera, typhus, worms, parasites, (name other diseases here), anyone?

      As the weather warms up over there, people can essentially camp for an extended period of time IF sanitation issues can be met. That includes clean water and food.

    • 0 avatar

      Jeez. Japan is the land of the heated toilet seat, with hot and cold  water and more buttons than the average dashboard. I usually don’t dare to use them. The buttons are engraved in Japanese, and who knows what will happen down there if I push a button …
      Japanese women often are embarrassed by the sound of their peeing. So they flush the toilet to literally drown out the embarrassing noise. This wastes water. Enter the “oto hime” or “sound princess”. It’s a box that plays the sound of running water …

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, I’ve read about Japanese toilets with heated and cooled air to dry off one’s privates after the heated water squirt to clean. 

      We have TOTOs installed in our home – Japanese toilets made in Vietnam.  They’re the best gravity flush 1.6G toilets I’ve ever seen.  We’ve had them for 3 years now and only one clog (wife’s fault).  Now, back to cars.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    China stands to benefit greatly from Japan’s misfortune.

  • avatar

    Folks, I’m calling the 011 model year a wash with regards to Japanese imports.  By the end of this month or for sure by mid-May, you’ll see what I mean.
    It will be a total drag, too.   I wish the Japanese god-speed in getting back to semi-normal.

  • avatar

    In 1929-1930, the aircraft carrier USS Lexington provided electric power to the city of Tacoma, after a prolonged drought curtailed power production.  It seems like it would be prudent to equip our current large ships, especially our nuclear powered aircraft carriers, with the ready ability to hook up to the civilian grid and supply emergency power.  As recent national disasters have shown us, “national security” goes well beyond the fighting of wars.

    • 0 avatar

      Installing electric power generation systems excess to a warship’s needs would compromise the ship’s primary functions, as something would need to be removed to make room for the generators.  The reason that Lexington was able to provide electricity to Tacoma is that she was equipped with a turbo-electric drive system.  IOW, steam from her boilers powered generators, which then powered electric motors to turn her screws.  While this was more fuel-efficient than direct-drive turbine propulsion, the  turbo-electric system’s increased cost, weight and perceived vulnerability to damage make reduction-geared steam turbines a better option for nuclear-powered ships.

      On a car-related note, wouldn’t the Chevy Volt have been able to save some weight by taking advantage of its electric drive’s torque and reversibility characteristics  and dispensing with a gearbox?

    • 0 avatar

      Not really a problem as warship go electric for their futuristic weapon systems(laser etc)

  • avatar

    I want to join the chorus and rightfully acknowledge the tremendous work that Bertel has been doing on this front. I learn more about the real, hard problems the people of Japan are facing on this site than I do anywhere else. Great work and please keep it up!
    This is precisely the kind of catastrophe that drives home just how much we take for granted in our highly developed, technological lifestyles. As a rule, most people only take notice of these kinds of issues when the highly complex conditions that enable our everyday, technological lifestyle actually breaks down. It’s only when we lose electricity for a couple of days, for example (as experienced during the widespread blackout in North America from a couple of years ago), that we realize just how many things in our lives depend on the ready and widespread availability of electrical power. Just imagine what would happen in Canada or the U.S. if we were to lose electrical power at the scale with which it has affected Japan (both spatially and temporally). The character and demands of the immediate environment would change dramatically and people would be forced to adapt themselves to radically new and different lifestyle demands. This is not a trivial loss of power or infrastructure here, it is the loss, or at least the serious impairment of the conditions necessary for enabling and maintaining a general lifestyle, a general way of life. My mind still boggles when I think about it.
    I said at the beginning that this could very well be a nation-changing event, and it was precisely this kind of broad, long-term disruption of the complex, systematic conditions of everyday life that I had in mind. Unfortunately, even with Bertel’s vivid and highly informative reports, the real impact of this at the ground level is probably still too abstract for most of us to fully appreciate (and I include myself in that as well).

    • 0 avatar

      “This is precisely the kind of catastrophe that drives home just how much we take for granted in our highly developed, technological lifestyles.”

      I’ve been taken aback in recent years about how much electricity is simply wasted and used for no other reason than lighted street signs, the new billboards that are really giant TVs and excess lighting in, on and around buildings merely to make them look good at night. It seems people are led to believe that if something doesn’t plug into a wall, it is somehow outdated and useless. This goes hand-in-hand with the complexity even of appliances and TV’s and computers that require so much memory and speed and electricity to fulfill what used to take far less computing power to achieve. It feeds off itself and ever spirals upward. What goes up must always come down. Gravity always wins.

      Electric power is a wonderful thing that makes life easier and more convenient, but when so much is absolutely dependent on it and cannot operate without it, that makes me pause and plan accordingly if the lights went out.

  • avatar

    You would think producing cars would be low on Japan’s priority list right now.  Though many were destroyed, I doubt there’s a national shortage.  Nor is there a global shortage.  Cuba shows how long a country can go without new cars.
    Perhaps Japan could use the income from car exports, but Japan is sufficiently wealthy country that they should be able to do without that income for a while.
    Energy has been squandered in developed countries like a party that everyone thought should only get busier and louder.  I’m sure Japan would have enough power if they concentrated on the top priorities.  It needs to be approached as a situation as demanding as a war, and with people as willing to adapt their lifestyles accordingly.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      I’m not sure how wealthy Japan is. As of 2010 it already had the world’s highest government debt as a percentage of GDP (225%). For all of the screaming you hear about the US’ debt, the US ranks way down in 36th place by this measure at debt = 59% of GDP.

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