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TOKYO (Reuters) - An unscheduled, large-scale power outage is possible in Tokyo and surrounding areas on Thursday evening if power demand exceeds that of this morning, Japan's trade minister said.
Trade minister Banri Kaieda said demand this morning almost reached the available capacity of Tokyo Electric Power Co due partly to lower temperatures than normal, adding that electricity demand usually peaks in the evening or early night.
"There is a possibility of unpredictable, large-scale blackout. In order to make sure to avoid the unexpected, we'd like to ask industry users to save electricity and ordinary people to save electricity in the evening and at night," Kaieda said at an extraordinary news conference in the afternoon.
TEPCO's power supply capacity is 33,500 mega watts(MW) for Thursday, but power demand this morning reached a peak of 32,920 MW, Kaieda said, compared with a peak of 32,500 MW on Wednesday.
In a sign that Tokyo residents were heeding the call, the central Akasaka area, its narrow streets lined up with sushi restaurants and noodle shops normally packed with office workers and lit up by neon signs and glowing office towers, was submerged in near darkness.
A devastating quake and tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan last week, crippling TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility where explosions and radiation leaks have forced thousands of people to evacuate the area, cut electricity supplies and halted industrial operations in wide areas in northern Japan.
A peak of electricity demand in Tokyo and surrounding areas covered by TEPCO on March 10, one day before the quake, was 48,671 MW, according to an industry data.
Almost all TEPCO areas have recovered electricity by now although the company has been conducting a planned rolling blackout in some areas with early notices this week.
But about 850,000 households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co said, and the government said at least 1.5 million households lacked running water.
Kaieda also told reporters that the government has asked for an increase in the run rate at 13 oil refineries in operation in west Japan to 95 percent or more to ship extra gasoline and gas oil to the quake-affected north.
An additional 20,000 kilolitres (kl) per day of oil products from the west and extra supply from two refineries in the northern Hokkaido island are set to meet the demand in the affected areas of 38,000 kl per day, he said.
"We understand we've caused a lot of trouble to users of oil products due to a lack of supply," Kaieda said. "Our priority is now the areas affected by the quake."
Earlier on Thursday, an oil industry body said oil product output in Japan will recover to 3.4 million barrels per day (bpd) by the end of March, a level above domestic demand, as idled refineries resume operation. But disruptions in distribution routes remain as a major bottleneck.
In a move to help to deal with the shortage in the north, Kaieda said the government has asked to move hundreds of road tankers from the west to the north.
Refineries in the west are also asked to cut their oil products stocks by a total 50,000 kl over the next three days and ship them to Tokyo and its outer areas, where the quake forced Negishi of JX Holdings' and two other big oil refineries shut after the quake.
Together with a reduction of oil products stocks in eastern Japan by a total 30,000 kl over the same period, the extra supply would help fill in a gap in demand in Tokyo and surrounding areas as the three refineries are set to be back in operations in coming days, Kaieda said.
TEPCO, Japan's largest utility, said earlier this week it may impose a rolling blackout during an upcoming three-day weekend for Tokyo and the nine prefectures it serves.
Editing by Tomasz Janowski