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Japan’s two incompatible power grids make disaster recovery harder

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The huge disaster in Japan has ruined parts of the nation’s electrical system, notably the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors that remain shut down. As a result, the country’s utilities can’t generate enough power to meet demand, so they are using rolling blackouts to give some power to everyone for some portion of each day. That tactic is crippling industry—it’s hard to run a factory that makes cars or TVs when the power suddenly cuts out for a few hours each day. The blackouts complicate commuting, so workers can’t get to their shifts on time, which further cripples manufacturing. And so on.

Incredibly, the southwestern half of Japan, which largely survived the earthquake and tsunami unscathed, cannot help the northeastern half of the nation, which took the brunt of the damage, because the two sections of the country operate on two separate power grids that are incompatible. As NPR reported on March 24, the southwestern section can actually produce surplus power, but the transmission and distribution system there operates at 60 Hertz, and the northeastern region’s grid operates at 50 Hz. This awkward situation, seen clearly on the Japanese map above (blue is 60 Hz, red is 50 Hz), is the legacy of a historic oddity: the "east," as it’s referred to in Japan, built its grid based on the German 50 Hz system, and the "west" followed the American 60 Hz system. (An English adaptation of a similar map is here.)

Converting power from one system to the other is a complex task that requires enormous yet highly sensitive machinery. The country has only a few, meager "interconnect" facilities that can do the job, which have nowhere near the capacity to minimize the need for rolling blackouts.

The U.S. has a less dramatic but similarly tenuous setup. The nation is divided into three grids. All three operate at 60 Hz, but again, only a few interconnects exist between the regions. Those sites would have to be beefed up significantly if the country was to benefit from building massive wind farms in the windy high plains or big solar farms in the sunny southwest. More and larger interconnects would also allow regions to "wheel" large quantifies of power between them, to help minimize blackouts caused by storms. Better interconnects would also help utilities that might be in danger of exceeding their capacity (say, Texas, buckling under heavy air conditioning load in August) to get some extra power from another region that has some to spare (perhaps cool Minnesota on that same day).

Map courtesy of Tosaka, via WikiMedia Commons

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  1. 1. nytflyr 6:18 am 03/26/2011

    Yikes! Makes me want to rush out and buy a generator. My house is all electric.. with the exception of the water heater. The only brands of generators that come to mind are Honda and Caterpillar. Suffice to say the Caterpillar would not be viable due to its size. I grew up overseas and to this day still have candles and matches in every room. Cooking and clean water would have the higher priority. Hot water is a bonus.
    Best wishes to the affected peoples of Japan. Suggestion: The more the bureaucrats mumble, the faster citizens should evacuate the territory around the damaged nuclear power plants.

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  2. 2. 2crackerheads 11:16 pm 03/26/2011

    everyone has a solution for problems of someone else,so could Japan use geothermal energy like Iceland ? all the energy is used for is to heat water hot enough for steam, with Japan being volcanic and their people intelligent (and it is being done in Iceland) . With wave energy pioneered by US military and being used in Hawaii by US Marine base now. why can’t an island nation like Japan make full use of its natural attributes ? who owns the electric company ? not the people . GREED is evil. my heart is with those people, sure hope their relief is soon . Hope is all I have to offer.

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  3. 3. grebret 1:34 pm 03/27/2011

    The article above about interconnection of power grids i Japan and in the US is apparently based on lack of technical knowledge.

    Interconnection of power grids, be that of different frequency (50/60 Hz) or phase, can be achieved through standard power system components – specifically high voltage DC (HVDC).

    These systems were originally developed as alternatives to long AC cables, which are not technically possible over extended distances (has to due with electrical properties of cables).

    As an example, the Nordic power grid is not in phase with the European power grid (historic reasons). Very substantial ammounts of electrical power is transmitted between the grids. The direction of the flow is selected based on a buy-sell scheme.

    Several HVDC connections are established for the additional purpose of providing backup electrical power in the event of major failures.

    There are NO technical reasons why similar setups could not be created in Japan and in the US.
    What is the cost of a roling blackout / brownout ?
    Exactly. Just do it.

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  6. 6. jesuscastillo7 5:41 pm 08/11/2011

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  7. 7. ZakTrevor 11:58 am 12/24/2012

    Makes me want to rush out and buy a generator. My house is all electric. Thanks for sharing. Buy Followers Twitter

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