Japan's Energy Gridlock

Since the Fukushima disaster, Japan has had to curb energy usage to make up for the lack of nuclear power. But how long can this energy preservation go on before it cripples the country’s economy?
Published: Wed 10 Apr 2013

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has been developing a new energy plan since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster which left the country without a significant percentage of its power generation. Government continues to debate whether the country should eliminate nuclear power altogether, return to 25% by 2030 or target some level in between. To make up for the loss of nuclear power, the government has shifted its focus to a 20% energy saving in order to avoid blackouts. However, experts say this is an ambitious goal. They point out that that with financial incentives, funding for retrofits and other measures, homes and smaller businesses could reduce electricity usage by 10% to even 15% at most.

Energy Efficiency Measures

After the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami which triggered a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Japan’s east coast and caused shutdowns at several others, the government announced energy-saving measures. These are not mandatory, and companies do not get punished for ignoring the government’s request to save electricity. Residents and Japanese companies have been happy to comply in order to avoid blackouts. Electricity conservation, or “setsuden,” is a way to help alleviate the loss of electricity generated by the nuclear power stations. People have been doing everything they can to save energy. To minimize air conditioning, they raised thermostats in homes, offices and stores to 83 degrees Fahrenheit, as requested by the government. Appliances and electronic devices were set to the most energy-efficient settings, lights were switched on only when necessary and escalators were shut off. Companies also continue to chart their energy consumption. According to a Washington Post article, a factory in Sapporo regulates its electricity usage by announcing to workers, via the PA system, that air conditioners and other unnecessary appliances are switched off when consumption levels are too high.

A smart grid and smarter technology will go a long way in assisting the country with long-term energy efficiency goals.

Voluntary decrease in consumption- a long-term solution?

Voluntary reductions in consumption has worked but for how much longer? While government forecasters expected this voluntary action to shave peak demand by about 6%, residents and businesses cut about 11%, according to government analysis. The government assumes that continued voluntary energy savings will be significant through 2030. But experts believe otherwise. Tokyo-area electricity savings dropped to about 10% in the summer of 2012 from 15% in the summer of 2011. This shows how quickly voluntary programs can lose steam. California's electricity crisis of 2000-2001 saw a similar pattern for the effectiveness of voluntary appeals.

Many Japanese companies are not willing to co-operate any longer, saying that the energy saving is becoming more of a drain than a goodwill gesture. The energy shortages are becoming a thorn in the country’s side as there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Asked by the government to use less electricity, companies say the cutbacks negatively affect their productivity, thin their profits and may eventually bring the world’s third-largest economy to its knees.

The government's assumption that voluntary cutbacks will persist is based on a survey of 20,000 residents and businesses, asking if they suffered from the sacrifices, and if they could continue the same practices next summer. "This is like some paper written by a high school summer student. I can't believe the government's national energy policy is developed partly based on this," says Toshiya Okamura, Tokyo Gas company.

Energy generation is also essential

It is evident that the country cannot rely solely on energy efficiency measures while it decides what to do with its nuclear power stations. Energy efficiency is definitely essential to Japan’s energy security but the government needs to start focusing on new generation too-and fast. Tokyo Electric’s resources continue to be completely consumed by the effects of Fukushima and as a result, Tokyo has turned to Tokyo Gas for help. Electricity rates have escalated as gas-and-oil fired generation has increased.

As industry wants cheaper electricity, it seems that nuclear will eventually have to make a return. It will be up to the government and nuclear power operators to convince the population that more stringent safety measures are in place to avoid another Fukushima disaster. Clean energy (the government is aiming for 30% renewables) is definitely on the cards for Japan but this will take time and projects need finance.

Engerati Analysis

Through greater efficiency, a short-term increase in the use of fossil fuels, a rapid increase in renewables via Japan's new Feed in Tariff, Japan could avoid complete dependence on nuclear power, prevent blackouts, stimulate its economy and strengthen innovation. The use of smarter technology and appliances will help the country to continue with its energy saving measures while it harnesses alternate energy sources.


Stanford News-Sacrifice and luck help Japan survive without nuclear power, Stanford visiting scholar says

The Washington Post-In Japan, energy saving takes its toll