TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese utilities will largely avoid power shortages this winter despite prolonged reactor shutdowns amid public concerns over nuclear safety, but hurdles remain for next summer, the government said on Tuesday.
It also unveiled ways to bridge the gap next summer, when peak-hour demand is expected to exceed supply by 16,560 megawatts, compared with the biggest gap this winter of 2,530 MW in one area, if no reactors restart by then.
Utilities plan to secure additional fossil-fuel capacity of 4,090 MW by next summer, but other plans depend on how far policy initiatives, such as fiscal spending, can encourage energy conservation and the use of solar and wind power, leaving the risk of rolling blackouts.
A rise in fuel costs for utilities to make up for a lack of nuclear power, leading to bigger electricity bills for consumers, is another factor undermining the economy.
Using gas and oil to make up for the loss of all nuclear power reactors will cost more than 3 trillion yen ($38 billion) a year, based on imported fuel prices and utilization rates in 2009, the government has estimated.
"Even if no reactors are restarted by next summer, the government would like to do its utmost through policy efforts to ensure we can meet peak-hour demand and avoid a rise in costs for energy," Trade Minister Yukio Edano said at a news conference after he and other ministers discussed chances of power shortages this winter and next summer.
The ongoing radiation crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi plant, triggered by the March earthquake and tsunami, has shaken public confidence in nuclear safety, forcing watchdogs to set stricter regulations for restarting reactors closed for regular checks.
No reactors shut for maintenance have restarted since the March disaster, and the last of Japan's 54 commercial reactors still online is set to enter routine checks by May.
Before the March disaster, nuclear power generation accounted for about 30 percent of the country's power supply, a figure that has dwindled to a record low.
For this winter, the government called on users in Osaka and its surrounding areas and the southern island of Kyushu to meet numerical targets for curbing power use during peak hours.
The government also urged users in other areas to voluntarily curb peak-hour power use on weekdays between December 1 and March 30.
"For this winter, power conditions are not so severe as last summer. The government won't impose compulsory restrictions (like last summer)," Edano said.
Users in Kansai Electric Power Co's service area are urged voluntary curbs on power use of 10 percent or more from last year's peak-hour demand, and those in Kyushu Electric Power Co's area 5 percent or more.
The curbs apply on weekdays from December 19-March 23 for Kansai, and December 19-February 3 for Kyushu.
($1 = 77.975 Japanese Yen)
Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Watson