* Japan avoids mandatory power use limits for summer
* Concerns that power shortages could hurt recovery
* Critics doubt utilities' shortage forecasts
By Yoko Kubota
TOKYO, May 18 Japan urged at least 15 percent
power cuts in its urban-industrial west this summer from 2010
levels to cope with shortages after all nuclear reactors shut
down, but stopped short of the mandatory cuts seen in the east
The government said on Friday that it aimed to avoid rolling
blackouts in the region - home to many manufacturers including
struggling electronics giants Panasonic Corp and Sharp
Corp - although it needed to prepare just in case.
Power shortages could undermine a recovery in the world's
third-biggest economy and hasten manufacturers' moves to shift
factories overseas to avoid high production costs and an
uncertain electricity supply.
Japan's $5 trillion economy relied for nuclear power for
almost 30 percent of electricity needs before the March 2011
Fukushima crisis. But all 50 reactors are now offline for
maintenance checks and with the public wary of restarts due to
safety concerns, the gap is being met by firing up costly fossil
fuel facilities and through energy-saving steps.
Last year's massive earthquake and tsunami wrecked the
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, triggering meltdowns that
caused widespread contamination and forced mass evacuations.
Last summer, the government imposed mandatory usage cuts of
15 percent on customers of Fukushima plant operator Tokyo
Electric Power and Tohoku Electric in the east
of the country. Neither will face numerical targets this summer
as they are expected to meet demand by firing up thermal
The reduction targets are compared to usage levels in 2010,
when Japan suffered record high summer temperatures.
This summer, customers of Kansai Electric Power,
based in Osaka, western Japan, will be asked to cut usage by at
least 15 percent.
The utility has projected a 14.9 percent shortfall in August
if temperatures hit record highs seen in 2010. That would be the
worst among the nine utilities that have nuclear plants.
Critics, however, have questioned Kansai Electric's
forecasts, suspecting it is exaggerating potential shortages to
strengthen the argument for restarting offline reactors.
The government has yet to finalise a revamp of an energy mix
programme that had called for boosting nuclear power above 50
percent of electricity supply from about 30 percent before the
crisis, with options ranging from zero to 35 percent by 2030.
Kansai's service area had relied on nuclear power for nearly
half its electricity before the disaster.
Many big companies in the region have said they can manage
with power saving steps, and some experts said voluntary steps
would probably suffice to shrink the supply-demand gap given
growing awareness of energy saving measures.
Panasonic, headquartered in Osaka, plans to set air
conditioners at 28 degrees Celsius, while Sharp plans steps such
as reducing lighting and letting employees dress casually.
Ironically, weak demand for their LCDs and televisions has
lowered output rates, which may help them achieve savings.
Osaka-based Sumitomo Electric Industries has
invested 1.5 billion yen ($18.8 million) to build a cogeneration
system that captures secondary heat energy from a thermal power
plant. The wire-harness maker, which sells its products to the
auto and telecommunications industries, expects to cut peak
power consumption by 20 percent this summer compared with 2010.
The government sought voluntary cuts of 5 percent or more by
three other utilities based in central and western Japan - Chubu
Electric, Hokuriku Electric and Chugoku
Electric - and 7 percent or more by Shikoku Electric
, so they would have spare power to transfer to strapped
Kansai Electric and Kyushu Electric Power in the south.
Kyushu Electric Power's customers were asked to cut
power use by 10 percent or more, while Hokkaido Electric's
service area in the north has been urged to make cuts
of at least 7 percent.
The government is keen to restart two idled reactors at
Kansai Electric's Ohi nuclear plant.
But it faces an uphill battle in the face of public safety
fears, especially in communities that are close enough to share
the risk but too far away to reap the benefits of jobs and
subsidies that host communities have obtained.