Power grid crisis: Japanese data centers hit again?

It looks like the feared scenario of last year, that all of Japan’s nuclear power plants would be offline within about one year, is becoming true.

Currently only two of 54 reactors are still operating. Tokyo Electric’s last active reactor is set to go into maintenance on March 26, while Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari No. 3 unit is scheduled to be closed for routine checks in late April or early May. The reactors need to meet new safety checks and No reactor can restart until it passes computer-simulated “stress tests” to confirm it can withstand earthquakes and tsunamis on the scale that wrecked Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. Then cabinet ministers need to sign off and local governments, by custom although not by law, need to agree.

“A tight supply-demand balance (of electricity) does not affect our judgment on nuclear safety and we are in the process of making that judgment,” Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who holds the energy portfolio, told parliament.

The prospect of being without nuclear power has raised fears of another year with forced power rationing and temporary blackouts in the summer, when air conditioning puts extra strains on supply. It is estimated that the nationwide power supply could fall 7 percent below demand if no reactors are online. Since it is difficult to raise overall supply capacity drastically in the coming months, the government is asking power utilities to come up with a variety of pricing incentives to encourage large users to reduce peak-hour demand, a trade ministry official said.

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Nuclear Power Plants Japan

Japan is shifting its energy mix. Nuclear power previously accounting for 30% of Japan’s power output. Japanese utilities now have ramped up imports and use of coal, oil, and natural gas, while industrial consumers have been more reliant on diesel generators to guarantee reliable energy supply.  The shutdown of nearly all nuclear reactors has forced energy providers to reopen decommissioned oil and gas power plants. Some companies are running their plants partly with their own generators. Overall it is still difficult to meet demand.

Kansai Electric Power Co., which has shut down all the nuclear reactors under its jurisdiction, had difficulties supplying enough power to meet demand. The utility was forced to crank up its remaining power plants, including obsolete thermal power stations, to maximum output to meet winter demand.

Also malfunctions due to aging were frequently reported at such power stations. More than 10 plants across Japan had to be quickly shut down due to emergencies this winter. The trouble at the Shin-Oita thermal power plant of Kyushu Electric Power Co. had a particularly serious impact. The utility barely managed to avoid implementing blackouts in its service area by hooking up to power supplies from five electric utilities in western Japan and Tepco.

Imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by Japan’s 10 regional utilities have increased 39 percent in January, relative to the year prior, while imports of fuel oil and crude oil both nearly tripled. This gives is a growing concern over whether Japan can ensure a stable supply of the fuel. While the country has a 200-day crude oil reserve, it has only enough LNG for two to three weeks of power generation. As a result of soaring power generation costs, Tepco will raise its electricity charges from April. If the dependence on thermal power generation continues, other electric utilities could very likely follow suit.

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The current energy crisis has also an profound effect on the carbon emission. Japan, the world’s fifth-largest carbon emitter, is backtracking on the introduction of a carbon price. A move by the Japanese government to put a price on carbon at this point would be economically and politically impossible in Japan today, according to senior Japanese foreign affairs officials in Tokyo. The commitment made earlier with the election of the prime minister  in 2009 to reduce emissions by 25 per cent is no longer realistic.

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Last year summer all facilities that consume more than 500kWh were ordered to reduce their peak power usage by 15 percent from a year earlier. Data centers operators have fought the cap and the idea of rolling blackouts with some success. It is still uncertain if the Japan Data Center Council (JDCC) will be as successful as last year. What is certain is that much pressure will be put on data centers in trying to find ways to cope with long-term power shortages and the price hikes that result.

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Power grid crisis: Japanese data centers, saved by the bell?

Ten days ago we spent some attention to the power grid crisis in Japan and the impact on data centers. More news has now became available. In the aftermath of the big earthquake in Japan power shortage remains a big problem in Japan. Tokyo’s government is concerned that the North will not be able to maintain critical power provision during the summer. The Japanese Government issued papers recently showing forecast supply and demand for electricity in the Tokyo region. It showed that supply capacity for TEPCO was 55.20GW while demand was expected to be 60GW while at Tohokyu EPCO, 12.3GW could be produced while demand would be 14.80GW.

Starting July 1 all facilities that consume more than 500kWh are ordered to reduce their peak power usage by 15 percent from a year earlier. Some government buildings will be asked to save more, in some cases up to 21% on weekdays between 1 July and 30 September from 9am to 8pm. In most cases, businesses are required to decrease the amount of lighting used and cut down on staff hours at work, otherwise risk being fined. Fines for noncompliance are high, the equivalent of US$12,500 for each hour over the limit.

In Tokyo area, more than 70% of the country’s data centers are located.

Originally the Japan Data Center Council (JDCC) proposed grouping Japan’s data center operations into one collective for the purpose of managing the proposed rolling blackouts. It suggested that this would reduce problems that would occur if each individual data center had to run according to the blackouts each day, a measure that would increase maintenance and other costs considerably.

It is said, the plan was scrapped because a lot of data centers actually ran on diesel generators, which take longer to start up and require more uninterruptible power supply capacity, cooling systems and have more complicated maintenance requirements.

The cuts for the data centers will be stopped at 5%. JDCC calculations found that anything more than this would require allowances in time for data centers to carry out server consolidation, renew equipment and virtualize further to make way for the electricity cuts.

Data centers operators have fought the cap with some success. They argued their facilities are critical infrastructure and that many had already slashed their consumption before the earthquake as part of energy-efficiency projects. Also, companies have been “evacuating” servers and storage from Tokyo offices to their data centers because of power shortages in the capital, making it even harder to reduce demand, Yamanaka (member of the Japan Data Center Council’s steering committee) said at the DatacenterDynamics San Francisco 2011 conference

“We told the government it was physically impossible” to meet the reduction targets, he said. The government eventually backed down and has reduced the target for data centers to between zero and 15 percent, depending on how much they reduced energy use the year before.

Data centers in Japan will now join railways and hospitals, which won’t have to comply with such strict measures after the Japan Data Center Council won approval for the measures to be lifted.

They will, however, be measured on the operations data centers are responsible for. Those running banks and financial services, for example, will enjoy ongoing power use. Others may see variations on required reductions of 0% to 15%, depending on their business case.

“In order to maintain the policy of avoiding planned blackouts, we will steadily implement installation of additional power capacity as we have planned, and we continuously do our best efforts to secure supply capacity.” Yamanaka said.

Data centers are also trying to find ways to cope with long-term power shortages and the price hikes that result, and how to replenish their fuel supplies more quickly. Service providers may alter contracts so that customers shoulder some of the increased cost for raised energy prices.

Power grid crisis Japan hits data centers

In the aftermath of the big earthquake in Japan it becomes more and more clear that the crisis in the critical power grid infrastructure isn’t over yet and is also hitting another critical infrastructure, data centers.

Data released by the Japan Atomic Industry Forum showed that only 17 of Japan’s 54 nuclear power reactors were in operation in mid-May. They represented around 15,500 MWe, or 31%, of the country’s total nuclear generating capacity. Thirteen reactors, with a combined capacity of 11,545 MWe (23.6% of total nuclear capacity), have shut as a direct result of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. Another 22 nuclear reactors are currently offline for inspections or equipment replacement, and will require local government approval to restart. Now, in June, 19 reactors with a capacity of 16,550 MWe, or about one-third of the total is online. So an astonishing two-third of the power plants are off-line! For a complete list of reactors that are shut down see Bloomberg.

Since March 11, reactors halted for inspection have not been restarted. Since each nuclear reactor must undergo a regular checkup every 13 months, the remaining 19 reactors are scheduled to be suspended one after another over the coming months, with all of them shut down by next summer. As in accordance with the Electricity Enterprises Law, regular checkups last a few months and involve inspection of reactors’ piping and peripheral equipment, disassembly and examination of emergency power generators, and checks on many other items, including turbines.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) warned that if those reactors currently shut down for inspections or maintenance are not restarted, and those currently operating are shut down when scheduled inspections are due, all of Japan’s nuclear power plants would be offline within about one year.

Japan nuclear generation drop

Japan nuclear generation drop (Image: METI)

Japan’s industry minister has called for a reopening of 35 atomic reactors that were shut down for safety evaluations after the March 11 nuclear disaster at Fukushima. At a Tokyo news conference, Banri Kaieda said electricity demand increases during the summer and power shortages could hobble industry, the Kyodo news agency reported.

However, many local governments where the idle plants are located are leery of restarting the facilities, despite assurances from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the report said.

Adding to the uncertainty are remarks by Haruki Madarame, the chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission. In an interview with Kyodo, Madarame said he regretted previous inadequate efforts to enhance the safety of nuclear power generation. He said even before the disaster, the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported some potential problems in the country’s regulation policies, but Japan “had not finished addressing” them when the earthquake and tsunami hit.

On top of this the power grid of Japan doesn’t make things easier. The transmission network in Japan is unusual because the country is divided for historical reasons into two regions each running at a different frequency. This frequency difference partitions Japan’s national grid, so that power can only be moved between the two parts of the grid using frequency converters, or, HVDC transmission lines. METI noted that if those reactors currently not in operation in western Japan are not permitted to restart by local authorities, the supply capacity in that region during the coming summer months will decrease by 8.8 GWe, or about 11% of expected supply capacity. This would not only affect supplies on the western coast of Japan, but also make it difficult to implement plans to transmit electricity to the eastern coast.

Power grid of Japan

Power grid of Japan src: Wikipedia

Japanese car companies will stop working on Thursdays and Fridays next month in a move that industry executives hope will relieve the pressure on Japan’s faltering electricity supply.
Data centers have been told to cut their energy use 20 percent because of the ongoing nuclear power crisis. Because of this, for example, computer maker Fujitsu Ltd.  plans to move 3,600 of its servers in the Tokyo and Yokohama area to data centers in other regions. The firm also plans to halt the use of some servers.

At this moment not many information is available what kind of measures the data center companies are taking. It sure is interesting to follow the developments closely. This power grid disaster is also food for thought about the impact of these kind of events when cloud data centers are involved.

Fortunately at the upcoming DatacenterDynamics conference on June 30 in San Francisco, a presentation will be given by a representative of the Japan Data Center Council (JDCC) and Zen Kishimoto of AltaTerra Research on Japanese data centers in the aftermath of the major quake in March. Although many data centers in Japan are concentrated in the Tokyo metropolitan area (some 60%), and few suffered direct damage from the quake, the JDCC surveyed the damage and collected noteworthy pictures and statistics.