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April 2nd, 2005

Why are there so few power blackouts in Japan?

In the U.S., they do not happen all the time, but they do occur with some frequency. In my personal memory, it happened maybe once or twice a year on average, though that may vary a great deal from area to area.

But in fifteen years in Japan, I have never experienced a blackout. Not one.

I was first made aware of this back in the 90’s when I was in San Francisco. After a local blackout, a Japanese friend questioned the quality of the power supply, surprising me with the idea that this was not a universal phenomenon.

Now, in my current neighborhood, power lines are underground–which seems like a wise choice, for esthetics, safety, access and protection from the most common cause of electricity failures: falling branches of trees during storms.

But most neighborhoods in Japan have above-the-street power lines. So what’s keeping blackouts away, especially during storms and typhoons? Are there simply that many fewer trees? Are there backup systems? The ability to reroute? Different technologies in play? Newer infrastructure? Stronger power lines? I’d be interested to know the reason why…

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  1. April 3rd, 2005 at 00:36 | #1

    That is an interesting observation. In my time here, the only blackout I experienced was when I was out in Izu during the typhoon last year. I think that blackouts do occur but fewer people are affected because of the population destiny either the powergrids are smaller, thus limited the area impacted, or because the area to cover is smaller, comparing Japan to North America, they can afford to put in more redundancy. That’s just a guess.

  2. Luis
    April 3rd, 2005 at 00:43 | #2

    That makes sense. Also, my father just pointed out to me on the phone that in the U.S., there are a lot of trees of substantial height that can fall over and knock out the power lines. When I think about it, though there are quite a few medium-sized trees in Japan, there are very few big, tall, heavy-duty trees–ones tall enogh and heavy enought that they could take out the power lines. So that probably accounts for quite a bit as well.

  3. Enumclaw
    April 3rd, 2005 at 04:23 | #3

    I’d venture a guess about privitization versus government-supplied (or at least more tightly regulate) utility services.

    Even in the USA, where the electricity is supplied by a public utility, they’ve got to try and “compete” (ie, keep price comparable) with privately-owned, for-profit enterprises.

    And those guys no doubt figure it’s cheaper to just have the power go out from time to time and pay some linesmen to get out and fix downed lines than it would be to have an aggressive, proactive (ie, expensive) approach to keeping trees clear of lines.

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