Nissan Plant Open Saturdays Amid Power Crunch

By YURI KAGEYAMA | July 5, 2011

Nissan’s plant is busily rolling out the Leaf electric car and other models on a Saturday, having shifted production schedules for an aggressive nationwide effort to fight the power crunch created by a tsunami-crippled nuclear plant.

“Setsuden,” or “save electricity,” is now Japan’s biggest buzzword. The March 11 disaster sent several reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant into meltdowns, prompting the government to demand that major companies, shopping malls and universities reduce electricity consumption by 15 percent.

Starting Saturday, Nissan Motor Co. and other Japanese automakers are working weekends and instead taking Thursday and Friday off.

The reworked schedule is for July, August and parts of September, to spread out electricity consumption at plants and offices during peak power-need periods.

“This is an emergency,” Nissan Senior Manager in charge of environment and energy control Yuji Kishi said during a tour of the Oppama auto plant for reporters.

The setsuden program applies to office workers as well, who are starting their days early at 8 a.m.

Those needing to do overtime are restricted to certain floors, so the rest of the headquarters building in Yokohama can go dark, all in the name of setsuden.

Kishi said Nissan is already simulating electricity use for next year, assuming all nuclear plants are shutdown, to be prepared to slash electricity use by an even bigger 25 percent compared to last year.

“It will be a tough challenge,” he said. “But it is not impossible for us.”

Nissan showed its beefed up “smart meter” control room, which had been set up under normal times to monitor electricity consumption at its auto plants.

Now, the series of large-screen monitors and computers more closely watch electricity consumption, even at its headquarters and technical center offices, and predict what the use would be 30 minutes ahead, so assembly lines or air conditioning can be shut down, if needed.

Setsuden has grown evident everywhere.

Trains are running on reduced schedules, escalators and elevators have stopped running, neon signs are turned off and the usually suit-clad “salarymen” have begun to wear T-shirts and go tie-less in “Super Cool Biz” attire to survive thermostats at 28 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit).

Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s top automaker, is carrying out similar setsuden efforts, including turning off room lights, and setting computers to power-consumption mode, spokeswoman Kayo Doi said.

The campaign involves other sectors. Japanese electronics maker Panasonic Corp. has set up a “task force” to come up with electricity-saving measures, including encouraging employees to work at home.

The government has warned that blackouts would become needed if demand exceeds supply. Intentional violators of the 15 percent reduction target for companies face fines of up to 1 million yen ($12,400).

The limit does not apply to households, but the government has urged them to conserve energy as well. Some Japanese were rushed to the hospital for dehydration and heat stroke, partly from overzealous setsuden.

Pressure to save on power is coming when Japanese automakers are trying to drive up production, as the suppliers recover from the quake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. Parts shortages had disrupted production, but it’s expected to be back at pre-disaster levels soon.

And so Nissan is also changing summer holiday schedules and adding night shifts to crank out cars when power use is lower.

Keeping auto assembly plants going is a priority for the automakers. They need to catch up in lost production, and acknowledge they may end up working on Thursday and Friday, in what would be classified as working on holidays.

Nissan can’t produce the Leaf enough to keep up on orders, and its Zama plant that makes its battery, a key component, is running overtime. That means additional efforts to cut back on electricity use elsewhere, it says.

Automakers are increasingly relying more on their own power generators, which run on gas, but can supply about a fifth or a quarter of a facility’s electricity needs.

At Oppama plant, which employs 3,300 people with annual production capacity of 430,000 vehicles, the line was churning out vehicles on a weekend – just like a regular work day.

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