Quake Question #11: How Is Japan's Energy System Affected?

Readers ask: I see reference to natural gas explosions, a refinery fire (now out), a hydroelectric break washing away hundreds of homes, etc. What other energy problems, besides the very serious problems at Fukushima Daiichi, resulted from the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan?

Science answers: The main energy problem is delivering it where it is needed.

The most urgent issue is getting gasoline and heating fuel into the most hard-hit areas. A gasoline shortage in the area is hindering relief efforts as well as the ability of area residents to get to stores for food and supplies. And many people are in shelters without electricity and fuel for portable kerosene heaters. Temperatures are forecast to dip close to freezing tonight and tomorrow night.

The Gas Bureau of Sendai City, the major city closest to the earthquake, lost all capacity to supply gas, which most households in the region rely on for cooking. The bureau has announced that it will resume gas service to some of its customers starting tomorrow.

The earthquake and tsunami of 11 March toppled transmission lines throughout coastal regions of northeastern Japan. Tohoku Electric Power Company, which supplies electricity to the most hard-hit areas, initially said the disaster cut power to 4.8 million households. This evening, however, the utility reported on its Japanese Web page that power has been restored to all but 216,977 homes.

Tohoku Electric and Tokyo Electric lost power generation capacity because of the disaster. Both have resorted to rolling power blackouts to selected areas within their service regions in order to limit demand to available supply. The utilities and the government urged customers to curtail electricity use as much as possible. Trains throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area are running on reduced schedules to conserve energy. It is not clear how long the blackouts will continue.

For a complete list of quake questions and answers, see our Quake Questions page. For our complete coverage of the crisis in Japan, see our Japan Earthquake page.