How Japan’s largest utility coped with the Fukushima disaster

By Medha Basu

Smart meters and data-driven emergency and retail planning will help Tokyo's electric utility bounce back from natural disasters faster.

Raijin, the God of Lightning, is among the most feared deities in Japanese mythology. Temples depict him as a demon-like god and children grow up on stories of Raijin emerging during storms to eat their belly buttons.

He is particularly revered for his power to control storms and weather as Japan is regularly ravaged by typhoons and earthquakes. The Great Eastern Earthquake of 2011 was one of the most powerful in the country’s modern history and it caused a huge crisis for the Tokyo Power Electric Company (TEPCO) with the meltdown of its Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The disaster forced the utility to completely rethink the way it operates, says Shinichi Imai, Managing Director of International Business Development at TEPCO Power Grid. “Many things happened especially after the earthquake and the important thing is these technologies are very key to further innovation,” he says.

Smart meters

The utility has been installing smart meters that would allow it to be better prepared in the aftermath of disasters. By the end of next year, it will have installed 30 million of them. “In terms of emergency and resiliency, we need some new digital technologies.”

Data from the smart meters will help it better understand customers’ needs - something it had overlooked in the past. “Our utility was historically very conservative. We did not focus on customers,” Imai says. But with increasing competition, it has been forced to adapt. “If we don't know the customers’ needs, we can never create new services to make money. We need to know how customer needs changing recently.”

TEPCO has found new ways of serving customers - for instance, alerting emergency services to anomalies in electricity use. “If for a particular period there is suddenly no electricity use, maybe something has happened there.” Emergency services could detect these early enough to dispatch crews. This would be particularly impactful for Tokyo’s elderly residents, many of whom live alone and may not be able to call for help if they are injured.

Emergency and retail planning

Another use of energy data will be in emergency evacuation planning, Imai believes. Electricity consumption patterns can help the government understand local demographics in real-time, allowing it to prepare better for emergencies.

A third use will be to create more targeted retail strategies in residential areas. Local shops can understand when residents are most likely to be in their neighbourhoods, and they can plan opening and delivery times based on these, he says.

Japan’s data use laws, however, will need to be updated before any of these are possible. “The government is now running a committee for that purpose; we need a new regulation and new rules,” Imai explains. “We have a very big discussion in Japan right now”

The Fukushima disaster provoked massive changes for the utility. It has started to pay more attention to its customers and will be better prepared for emergencies in the future. Hopefully, the next wave of innovation will not need another visit from the God of Lightning.