Sunday, April 3, 2011

(5) March 14: The rolling blackouts start today

It might sound hard to believe but I’ve heard from coworkers (in their mid-30s, no less) that they don’t remember ever having to face a power outage. There have been occasions when due to lightning or typhoon, power lines had been cut but in those cases, power had been restored within a few hours. In Japan, electric power and water, the so called “lifelines” are supposed to be something you can always rely upon. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, one of the most important Japanese companies in the Kanto area, had always been a reliable company providing the electricity needed for this area.

In a country like Japan where resources are scarce, the required power comes from hydroelectric plants, thermal power plants and nuclear power plants combined with some clean energy installations; under normal conditions, this planning ensures a steady production of power that covers the country’s needs. In my opinion, Tokyo Electric Power Company’s main mistakes were that up until now, they were always advertising how safe the power plants are and that they never explained to us how much we rely on those plants for the electricity that we need.

Anyway, the blackouts are going to have three-hour duration and they will be area specific; each area will have a three-hour blackout and then the next area will follow. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, however, said that the enforcement of the blackouts will depend on the power demands. Except for the trains that will be forced to change their normal routes and schedules, other important functions of our society (hospitals, public facilities etc.) will keep on operating as usual but shops, restaurants etc. will have to try and match their business hours to the planned blackouts.

My house is in an area that didn’t have any blackouts on the first day, had one on the second day, was supposed to have two on the third day (but only one happened) and had also one on the fourth day. All the blackouts we had to go through lasted for one hour. In my place of work (in Kawasaki), we went through the first three days without any blackouts. One of my colleagues (who also had only one blackout enforced in the area where her house is), was complaining “For me the problem is that they say we are going to have a blackout and then we don’t. Now, even my children don’t believe them when they say that the power is going to go off!” Personally, I felt that the planned blackouts not happening was a good thing but the people’s reaction surprised me. I guess, even under circumstances such as these, it’s important for the Japanese people to feel that if something is planned to happen, it should happen.

In the fourth day, although we had information that the planned blackout would certainly occur, most of my colleagues didn’t really believe it. But I saw that the shops in the neighborhood around our office started closing preparations about one hour before the scheduled blackout; of particular importance in these cases is to stop the operation of elevators and computer servers. For me, though, what was especially worrisome was the toilet: in our office, the toilets have a sensor triggered flush system so if there is no power, the water doesn’t run. Again, it dawned on me how much we rely on power for our everyday needs.

Only when we lose the things we consider ordinary and common, we understand how many they are. In our all-electric homes and workplaces, a power outage makes everything halt; even our cell-phones’ batteries eventually die out and they stop being useful and the same goes for IP-phones and the Internet. This entire situation with the blackouts made electricity a matter for concern.

My house is very close to the Atsugi American military base – about 2 kilometers as the crow flies- and I saw that the base never faced power outages. So I asked some coworker who also lives in our city (and thus, close to the base’s gate) why this is so and he replied “Well, the base surely has generators for such occasions”. I was still not convinced, though; the base is a huge installation and I couldn’t believe that they have generators big enough to power all this. The next day, his wife who hadn’t seen their area in the blackouts list, went to the city hall to ask why it was so. The city hall clerk’s sole reply was “Your area is not in the list” so I guess this answers my question too.

Toyama Atsuko

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