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2014年8月 5日 (火)

北海道電値上げ 原発再稼働で火力頼み脱却を

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hokkaido Electric’s rate hikes must lead to reactors going back online
北海道電値上げ 原発再稼働で火力頼み脱却を

The electricity rate hikes implemented by seven utilities since the Great East Japan Earthquake have entered a second round of markups.

To avoid stagnation in the economy, which is now subject to the adverse effects of the April consumption tax increase, it is urgent and necessary to bring forward the smooth restart of nuclear power plants after confirming the safety of their operations.

Hokkaido Electric Power Co. has applied for electricity rate hikes with the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry. It seeks to raise electricity bills by 17 percent for households and 22 percent for corporate users, the highest increases requested by a domestic utility since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. The Hokkaido regional utility’s planned hikes are expected to go into effect as early as this autumn after a ministry screening on whether the higher rates are reasonable.

Hokkaido Electric raised its rates in September last year, but has been forced into circumstances that have made another hike unavoidable less than a year later. This is primarily because the firm’s financial condition has drastically deteriorated due to swelling fuel costs for thermal power generation to make up for its halted nuclear reactors. The planned resumption of the three reactors Hokkaido Electric owns at its Tomari nuclear complex—previously envisioned to be restarted in sequence from last December—has failed to get off the ground.

Although it recently received ¥50 billion as a capital injection from the Development Bank of Japan in a bid to improve its ailing finances, Hokkaido Electric’s business prospects remain severe.

Unless it can make up its financial shortfall by increasing revenue through higher electricity rates, Hokkaido Electric is said to face the risk of its liabilities surpassing its assets as early as next fiscal year.

There is also concern that the utility may find it hard to raise funds through such independent means as loans from financial institutions and issuance of corporate bonds, thus becoming unable to make sufficient capital investment to ensure a stable supply of electricity. Given the situation, it should be considered inevitable that Hokkaido Electric has to increase its electricity rates to some degree.

Little room to cut costs

Nevertheless, it is necessary to make the markups as small as possible to minimize the power bill burdens on households and businesses.

Hokkaido Electric has been making serious efforts to enhance its business efficiency, worth ¥50 billion per year, through such moves as cuts in personnel costs and expenditures for procuring power generation materials. The utility should study whether there is any room to further streamline its operations.

It is also important to undertake a review of its power supply services, including the advisability of devising a new electricity rate-charging system designed to allow users to reduce their electricity bills based on their ability to find resourceful ways to economize on power consumption.

If operations are resumed at the Tomari nuclear plant and the firm’s finances improve, the utility will be in a position to consider the possibility of lowering electricity charges.

On a related note, there are understandable concerns that Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power are highly likely to seek another rate hike themselves.

Eighty percent of small and midsized businesses say their profitability will inevitably shrink if electricity bills are raised again. Rising electricity costs could even turn out to be the Achilles’ heel that hampers the Abenomics economic policy mix undertaken by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

There are no prospects of lower fuel costs for thermal power generation in the foreseeable future, while cost-cutting efforts by power utilities are nearing their limits in steps to streamline operations. To prevent electricity bills from being raised again, there is no alternative but to slash power generation costs by bringing reactors back online.

A path toward resumption has begun to be carved out for the operation of Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. The Nuclear Regulation Authority should proceed without delay with the task of conducting safety screenings of other nuclear reactors. The government must throw its support behind the utilities’ efforts through such means as playing a leading role in providing residents of nuclear plant-hosting communities with convincing explanations about the restart.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 4, 2014)


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