| TOKYO, Sept 27
TOKYO, Sept 27 Automatic doors are blocked at
offices, subway escalators are disabled and much of the
headquarters of Japan's biggest utility sits in semi-darkness -
all evidence of how a 2-1/2-year power crunch has forced
companies to re-think their energy use.
As expensive imported fuel has sent corporate electricity
prices surging by more than a third since the Fukushima nuclear
disaster, firms have scrimped and employees have grown used to
sweaters in the winter and open collars in the summer.
Adding to the pressure, Japan is without nuclear power for
only the third time since 1970 after the last of its 50 nuclear
plants was closed for routine maintenance on Sept. 15.
"Electricity fees will rise further and further," said Yukio
Noguchi, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. "We are just
at the beginning of the problem."
Before the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked
the Fukushima nuclear plant and prompted the shutdown of the
industry, nuclear power supplied about 30 percent of the energy
needs of the world's third-biggest economy.
With no sign of the post-Fukushima power-crunch abating,
most organizations plan to keep responding just as they've been
doing: by cutting costs and trying to save more energy, a
Reuters survey shows.
A few companies are seeking to exploit the high electricity
prices, but for most it's a matter of soldiering on.
About two-thirds of the firms in the Reuters Corporate
Survey say they will increase their energy conservation efforts
and a similar number will cut costs to combat continuing rising
Some larger firms are making efforts to generate their own
power, and high energy costs are also a factor in the growing
trend of production shifting overseas.
The Reuters poll of 400 big Japanese companies was conducted
from Aug. 30 to Sept. 13; 262 firms answered the question on
Conservation efforts have affected life across the country,
with rolling blackouts in Tokyo shortly after the disaster and
offices ever since adjusting their thermostats to cut air
conditioning bills and reduce heating costs.
Power consumption by large industrial users last fiscal year
was down more than 5 percent from before the disaster, trade
ministry data shows. Overall, annual power demand in Japan was
around 6 percent lower in the 12 months to March than it had
been in the year to March 2011.
Electricity fees make up a small portion of total costs for
Japanese firms, but any rise is a heavy burden due to the slim
profit margins many companies face.
Japan's No. 2 convenience store chain, Lawson Inc,
has cut electricity use by 30 percent since roughly the time of
the March 2011 tsunami, by switching to LED light bulbs, adding
solar panels and adopting other energy-saving measures in many
of its outlets.
Electric utilities themselves have spent billions of dollars
importing petroleum, gas and coal, driving Japan to a trade
deficit for the 14th straight month in August, the longest such
streak since 1979-1980.
Power conservation measures imposed out of necessity in
March 2011 have become routine. Fukushima operator Tokyo
Electric Power Co. has lights dimmed throughout much of
its main office in Tokyo, while on the city's subway some
stations have cut the number escalators operating.
Yet corporate efforts to wring every bit of production out
of pricier electricity can only achieve so much in a
resource-poor country already long famous for its energy
Power costs for businesses have risen by just over a third
since the disaster, according to the Bank of Japan, and many
expect them to keep growing due to increased use of costly
thermal fuel, higher import costs from a weaker yen and the
future costs of decommissioning nuclear plants.
AT THE LIMIT
A few companies are benefiting from the power squeeze.
MXVR Co, which counts Toyota Motor Corp and Sharp
Corp among its clients, says sales have more than
doubled since the disaster for its machine that helps reduce
power use by regulating the voltage from supplied electricity.
Companies' attempts to simply use less energy "have reached
their limit, and for further cuts, companies will have to adopt
energy-conservation equipment", said Daisuke Sato, president of
the unlisted MXVR. "Higher electricity prices have been a
tailwind for us."
He said firms have room to cut power use by an additional 40
to 50 percent through the wider adoption of energy-efficient
Andrew DeWit, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo,
said that since the tsunami: "There's been a realisation among
the big players - Toyota, Hitachi, shipbuilders - that there's a
huge opportunity in power."
A Toyota subsidiary is among more than 100 companies that
have registered with the government to be power producers and
suppliers, joining many major manufacturers in selling excess
electricity produced in-house, at rates often lower than the
those of the regional power monopolies.
Since the 2011 disasters, Toyota has installed several gas
co-generation units and increased its solar-energy generation
capability, using the power produced at its facilities as well
as selling it to a wide range of nearby businesses - including a
factory for Bain Capital-owned restaurant chain Skylark and a
Sacrifice remains the default response among Japanese firms
to the crunch, but about one-fifth of the manufacturers in the
Reuters survey are considering on-site power production or
storage, something many Japan firms have adopted recently.
In July, Honda Motor Co Ltd added a gas
co-generation unit at its Yorii factory 80 km (50 miles)
northwest of Tokyo. Along with plans to use the excess heat the
plant produces and other conservation measures, Honda expects
the steps to cut energy use at the plant by 30 percent.
Still, Waseda's Noguchi said the only fundamental solution
to high electricity costs was to shift operations abroad - a
choice that a fifth of the manufacturers in Reuters poll are
"Energy conservation will not be enough to offset the rising
prices, because often the costs required to undertake it will
not be enough to justify the benefits."
(Addtional reporting by Yuko Kubota, Kentaro Sugiyama, Kevin
Krolicki, Ritsuko Shimizu; Editing by William Mallard and Alex