Can Japan Keep the Lights On? The Ukraine War Upends a Big Energy Bet.

TOKYO — In 2018, when the power company Hope Energy entered Japan’s new retail electricity market, it thought it had a surefire strategy. Wholesale energy was becoming ever cheaper as liquefied natural gas flooded global markets. Hope Energy would sell competitively priced electricity contracts to local governments and public facilities, undercutting Japan’s old-line power companies, which had long prioritized stable supplies over cost.

But then came the pandemic and the Ukraine war, which caused L.N.G. prices to soar. Hope Energy could not honor its price pledges, and it, along with more than 30 other electricity retailers in Japan, went out of business. Customers scrambled for new providers.

Now, the world’s third-largest economy is again confronting the fragility of its energy system. That has forced a reconsideration of how the resource-poor country can maintain a reliable and affordable power supply in an era of growing geopolitical uncertainty, reflected most immediately in rising calls for a boycott on Russian energy.

The reassessment, analysts agree, is likely to set back Japan’s efforts to more fully deregulate its electricity industry and reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. It is also putting new pressure on the country’s economy and politics, as anxieties about Japan’s ability to supply itself with power rise to their highest levels in over a decade.

While many nations have been buffeted by the energy-market chaos set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prompting a rush for new sources of energy and causing pain for consumers, the spike in L.N.G. prices has become a particular source of concern for Japan.

Energy security has been a longstanding preoccupation in Japan, where electricity generation is overwhelmingly dependent on imported fossil fuels. Natural gas has become an increasingly important part of the mix, as the country sought to shut down polluting coal-fired plants and mothballed much of its nuclear power industry after the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi station.

Cheap and plentiful, cleaner than coal and safer than nuclear: L.N.G. was seen in Japan as a crucial transitional fuel as it gradually shifted to renewable energy. But it’s no longer cheap or plentiful, with supplies diminished by logistics issues related to the pandemic and increased demand from China as it moves away from coal. Sanctions on Russia, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of L.N.G., have further crimped supplies, sending prices soaring.

In March, L.N.G. sold in Japan for nearly 23 percent more than it did the previous month, a problem made worse as the yen has sunk to 20-year lows against the dollar.

“The war, the sanctions, are a very real stress test” to Japan’s energy system, said Yuriy Humber, the founder of Japan NRG, a consulting group. So far, he added, the results are “not looking good.”

Japan is the world’s second-largest importer of liquefied natural gas after China, which took the lead last year. Even before the Fukushima disaster, L.N.G. generated around 24 percent of the country’s electricity, a share that had grown as the country took coal power offline.

After the meltdown, usage skyrocketed, and today over one-third of Japan’s power comes from the fuel. In 2020, Japan purchased more than 74 million tons of L.N.G., over one-fifth of the global supply. (In the United States, 38 percent of electricity comes from natural gas, but the country produces most of what it consumes.)

The disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan in March.Credit…Hiro Komae/Associated Press

Around 8 percent of Japan’s supply comes from a project, Sakhalin-2, that was established as a joint venture among the Russian firm Gazprom, the British company Shell and two Japanese companies, Mitsui and Mitsubishi. That has put Japan in a difficult position as the United States and others have called for a boycott on energy exports from Russia, a critical source of Japanese L.N.G.

In early April, Japan announced that it would eventually phase out purchases of Russian coal. But Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has insisted that his country cannot afford to cut off its support to Sakhalin-2, which he has described as “extremely important to Japan’s energy security.”

Even without the war and the pandemic, an energy crisis seemed bound to happen in Japan.

Some regions have run their electrical grids near capacity since the Fukushima disaster. In the warmest and coldest months, regional providers’ surplus power generation often dips below 3 percent, the minimum level considered necessary for guaranteeing a steady supply. And L.N.G., unlike other energy sources, is not amenable to stockpiling. Japan maintains only two to three weeks’ supply at a time, and that has left the country vulnerable to blackouts in periods of unexpectedly high power demand.

But the collapse of Hope Energy and other electricity retailers is symbolic of how much the two calamities have shifted the once optimistic calculations around Japan’s energy future.

In 2016, Japan began to deregulate the electric power market, allowing retailers to compete with monopolistic firms like the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

There seemed to be plenty of room for cost savings: Producers in the United States were making so much natural gas that, in some cases, it was cheaper for them to burn it at the well than pay for it to be transported.

In Japan, hundreds of companies rushed into the newly deregulated power market. Some, like the Japanese internet giant Rakuten, had no industry experience. Many didn’t hedge against the possibility of rising energy costs. Few invested in their own generation capacity, eschewing fixed costs. And rather than signing long-term energy contracts or securing low prices through the use of futures, many tried to keep overhead low by making purchases in line with daily power demand, buying at wholesale rates with the shortest possible lead time.

Residential buildings during a power outage in the Koto district in Tokyo after an earthquake in March.Credit…Philip Fong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Convinced that rates would continue dropping, companies “mistakenly thought that they could do business that depended on” Japan’s wholesale energy market, said Syusaku Nishikawa, an energy analyst at Daiwa Securities.

The Russia-Ukraine War and the Global Economy

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Rising concerns. Russia’s invasion on Ukraine has had a ripple effect across the globe, adding to the stock market’s woes. The conflict has already caused​​ dizzying spikes in energy prices and is causing Europe to raise its military spending.

The cost of energy. Oil prices already were the highest since 2014, and they have continued to rise since the invasion.  Russia is the third-largest producer of oil, so more price increases are inevitable.

Gas supplies. Europe gets nearly 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and it is likely to be walloped with higher heating bills. Natural gas reserves are running low, and European leaders worry that Moscow could cut flows in response to the region’s support of Ukraine.

Food prices. Russia is the world’s largest supplier of wheat; together, it and Ukraine account for nearly a quarter of total global exports. Countries like Egypt, which relies heavily on Russian wheat imports, are already looking for alternative suppliers.

Shortages of essential metals. The price of palladium, used in automotive exhaust systems and mobile phones, has been soaring amid fears that Russia, the world’s largest exporter of the metal, could be cut off from global markets. The price of nickel, another key Russian export, has also been rising.

Financial turmoil. Global banks are bracing for the effects of sanctions intended to restrict Russia’s access to foreign capital and limit its ability to process payments in dollars, euros and other currencies crucial for trade. Banks are also on alert for retaliatory cyberattacks by Russia.

Hope Energy, which started life providing tech and human resources expertise to local governments, founded an energy division in 2018, hoping to use its existing business networks to cash in.

The business started well: By June 2020, the company said it had $95 million in sales, a more than 760 percent increase over the same period the previous year. In light of its success, it separated from its parent company and announced that it was moving into renewable energy.

However, the sudden surge in prices in early 2021 blindsided the company, which had not prepared for the possibility of a major jump in costs, according to a statement it released when it declared bankruptcy.

Masaru Tagami, who is in charge of facilities procurement for the central Japanese city Hida, one of Hope Energy’s former clients, said it had been caught off guard by the company’s “sudden” collapse and the rise in costs as its business was handed to another firm.

The city’s annual electric bill is expected to rise 40 percent, he said, adding that the situation had played havoc with its budget. “I am seriously worried about how long these circumstances will continue,” he said.

Power companies hit hard by the pandemic-related spike expected that prices would abate by this March as the effects on supply chains wore off, said Junichi Ogasawara, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Energy Economics Japan.

“But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the situation has changed to one where the current conditions will drag on,” he said.

Since then, the precariousness of Japan’s energy situation has only become clearer. In March, after an earthquake near Fukushima knocked out part of the electrical grid, a cold snap pushed Tokyo to the brink of rolling power outages. In the past, coal-fired power stations could have been called upon for cheap backup energy, but inefficient old plants have been taken offline.

In a disaster-prone country like Japan, “we’re still in a position where these kinds of things can happen again” unless the government fixes the issues introduced by deregulation and the patchwork shift to renewables, said Dan Shulman, the chief executive of Shulman Advisory, a firm analyzing Japan’s power industry.

In Europe, the chaos in energy markets has led to greater calls for the development of renewable energy sources. But in Japan, resistance by the largest power firms has kept solar and wind power — which are less dependable and hard to store — from being well integrated into the electrical grid.

Politicians and businesses in Japan, seeking a quick fix, are arguing for investment in more supplies of L.N.G. and a return, at least in the short term, to coal and nuclear, said Gregory Trencher, an associate professor at Kyoto University who studies energy policy.

“This has just reinforced the mentality that we need a balanced mix of energy sources,” he said, adding that “for people that would like to wake up in the morning and see nuclear and coal disappear from Japan’s power mix, I think that’s become even more difficult.”

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