300mm wafer

Japanese industry seeks power blackout review

Companies are beginning to seek exemptions for key sites as repairs bring them closer to resuming production.

Japanese technology companies are seeking to be given higher priority status during the rolling power blackouts that have followed this month’s earthquake.

To date, utilities such as Tokyo’s Tepco have applied blackouts zonally and even-handedly, with ‘safety critical’ sites such as hospitals and railways as the major exceptions. The outages have typically lasted three hours during daylight.

However, in the last week, there have been signs that the power companies can temporarily match supply to demand as milder weather has helped their efforts in bringing generators back online or out of mothballs.

Tepco said that it did not expect any blackouts at all would be necessary in Tokyo on Tuesday, March 29, though supplies in other parts of northern Japan remain more severely curtailed. Even in the Japanese capital, the suspension of blackouts depends on companies and individuals keeping their electricity consumption to the minimum.

Repair work at some factories has reached the point where some limited production can begin. Renesas Technology, a leading semiconductor manufacturer, said today (March 28) that it has two sites where it can begin startup procedures once the blackouts in their locations, in the Gunma and Yamanashi Prefectures, are over.

Shin-Etsu, the world’s largest manufacturer of the silicon wafers used in chip manufacturer, has become one of the first companies to publicly ask for the blackout system to be reviewed.

In a statement released this weekend, it said, “The rolling blackouts implemented by Tepco and Tohoku-Electric Power are affecting the operations at Shin-Etsu Group’s production sites located in their respective electric power supply areas. We will cooperate for reduction and restriction of the usage of electric power with all the company efforts.

“Meanwhile, we are requesting the electric power companies to provide a stable supply of electric power because we have facilities and equipments that need to be operated continuously due to the safety reasons.”

However, even if power were fully restored to the company’s wafer production facility, at Nishigo Village in the Fukushima Prefecture, it has been so badly damaged that supplies would primarily help with its repair for now, although this could make it fully operational sooner than originally expected. The site produces about 20 per cent of all the wafers used by the chip industry.

Semiconductor manufacturing is particularly power-hungry. Even in standby mode, much of the machinery used to produce chips can need to remain at more than 50 per cent consumption even though a line may have been stopped.

A longer term concern for the utilities is the surge in demand expected as full industrial output begins to resume, everyday life starts to return to normal and the Japanese weather improves to the point where demand for services such as air conditioning begin to place more strain on the grid.

They also face the difficulty that they cannot ‘import’ much electricity from generators in southern Japan that were largely unaffected by the earthquake. The north runs on a 50Hz supply and the south on a 60Hz one, and there is not enough transformer capacity to meet the north’s demands.

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