September 13, 2011


2011 Summer Energy-Saving Efforts in Japan: "We Can Make It!"--Achievements and Success Factors

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.108 (August 2011)

Japan is now experiencing its usual hot humid summer. [(Tokyo's summer temperatures are slightly higher than in Miami, Florida, with an average of 80 percent humidity in July)] Every summer, as people begin to turn on their air conditioners to cool off, electricity demand increases sharply. However, due to the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, with its devastating tsunami and subsequent accidents at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, potential power shortages this summer are a serious concern, the worst case being possible large-scale blackouts. So, let's take a look at the present state of electricity supply in Japan (as of August 15, 2011).

In Japan, electricity is basically supplied by 10 utility companies regionally divided; from north to south these regions are Hokkaido, Tohoku, Tokyo, Hokuriku, Chubu, Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa. The earthquake hit the Tohoku Region, causing not only earthquake and tsunami damage, but also accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO). As a result, the power supply capacities of both TEPCO and Tohoku Electric Power Co. were severely impaired.

After the earthquake, large-scale power outages occurred in the service areas of TEPCO and Tohoku Power Company. The two companies implemented rolling blackouts or "planned blackouts" on an area-by-area basis by rotation to deal with possible shortages in power supply. On the supply side, utilities were making every effort to increase their supply capacity by restoring earthquake-damaged thermal power plants and restarting suspended plants, however, these measures were not enough to fill the gap between demand and supply. Thus, they inevitably had to call for energy-saving efforts by consumers that could cut power demand even a little. (For a detailed report, see the JFS Newsletter No.104 released in April 2011)

Japan's Power Shortages and Countermeasures After the Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

Be it sudden power outages or scheduled blackouts, power failures do cause significant disruption in people's daily life and industrial activities, so the national and local governments, industries and citizens have embraced the common goal of preventing blackouts, and to this end are making their utmost efforts. Various actions have been taken to control power demand during summer, the time of highest annual peak demand due to increasing power consumption for cooling.

Results allowed both TEPCO and Tohoku Power Company to get through July, the first hot month of summer, without implementing planned blackouts. The maximum power demand in July this year within the service area of TEPCO was 46.27 million kilowatts on a day with a high of 33.7 degrees Celsius in central Tokyo. This figure was far below the initially estimated demand of 55 million kilowatts, representing a 23 percent cut from the maximum demand in July 2010. Looking at power consumption throughout July 2011, although there were fluctuations in demand in accordance with weather and temperature conditions, overall electricity use significantly dropped with an average reduction of 14 percent from the level in 2010.

Note: In July 2010, the highest temperature in Tokyo was 36.3 degrees Celsius, and the maximum power demand was 59.99 million kilowatts on a day with a high of 35.7 degrees Celsius

How about other areas in Japan? According to sales data from each utility company for the period January to June 2011, the volume of electricity supplied by TEPCO and Tohoku Power Company greatly decreased from the previous year, while the amount supplied by the other eight power companies stayed about the same.

Monthly Electricity Sales of 10 Power Companies (click to view large image)
* Data Source: The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (only in Japanese)

Decrease Rate of Electricity Sales from 10 Power Companies Compared to 2010 (click to view large image)
* Data Source: The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (only in Japanese)

At first, potential power shortages were a serious concern only for the service areas of TEPCO and Tohoku Power Company. However, in response to the nuclear power plant accidents in Fukushima, operations at other nuclear plants under periodic inspection have been suspended because of opposition from local authorities and residents, together with new national requirements that stress tests to be carried out at nuclear plants before they resume operations. There are 54 nuclear plants in Japan, of which only 17 are now in operation, and their operation rate is about 34 percent. Since nuclear power has provided roughly one third of electricity generating capacity in Japan, power supply is becoming extremely tight for other power companies as well.

In particular, Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO), which covers Japan's second biggest city of Osaka, had to shut down its nuclear power plant due to mechanical troubles. Estimating that the demand in July and August would exceed the maximum supply capacity, KEPCO started to call on citizens to cut electricity use by 15 percent compared to the 2010 summer level. However, electricity use was in fact reduced by only 4.5 percent from the previous year. Energy saving efforts also did not make much difference in the service areas of the other seven power companies.

What created the difference in electricity-saving performance among these areas? Can we find identifying factors in the areas which achieved large reductions in electricity consumption, and make use of these initiatives to address global warming and other environmental challenges?

The breakdown of Japan's domestic electricity consumption is: industrial sector 32 percent, commercial sector 36 percent, household sector 30 percent, and others 2 percent. The efforts of the industrial sector in particular contributed to a large decrease of electricity use this summer (2011). One of the major factors was the enactment of the Electricity Business Act "Restriction on Use of Electricity," which requires large-volume electricity users to reduce their electricity consumption by 15 percent.

This law went into force on July 1, 2011, and specifically requires large-scale users in the TEPCO and Tohoku Power service areas to comply with a mandatory reduction of electricity consumption by 15 percent compared to peak time consumption the previous summer, with a penalty of JPY1,000,000 (about US$12,350) or less for violations. Responding to this restriction, companies and factories in the relevant areas are making strenuous energy-saving efforts, such as changing their working hours or business holidays. A JFS newsletter article released in June 2011 describes some details of these efforts.

Japanese Companies Devising Ways to Deal with Electricity Shortages Caused by the Great Earthquake and Nuclear Accident

In addition to large-scale industrial users, a variety of energy-saving measures are being undertaken by non-industrial sectors that are difficult to restrict through legislation such as offices, hospitals, academic institutions, etc.. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, local governments, and industrial associations have been dispatching energy-saving professionals to provide customized advice. Department stores and office buildings are also setting their summer air conditioning temperatures higher than in a normal year.

When I visit other Japanese cities away from Tokyo, I often find that many places such as airport terminals, trains, buses, hotels and office buildings are overcooled compared to the ones in Tokyo. This reinforces my impression that people in Tokyo really are striving to save energy by setting air conditioners everywhere at warmer temperatures.

As for the household sector, it is generally difficult to gain widespread commitment from households, for example to measures against global warming, because only small number of highly-conscious people get involved. This time, however, governments, mass media and non-government organizations (NGOs) started running various campaigns calling for energy-saving early on in the year, which has led to some effective energy-saving by households.

One way of appealing to households to save energy is to clearly visualize electricity use. Daily forecasts of electricity demand and supply are available through twitter and e-mail provided by local governments and power companies. Displays at subway stations and office buildings also show the electricity forecast,including the maximum electricity supply capacity for the day and present electricity consumption. The ratio of these two factors is displayed as a percentage, and helps people to grasp how much capacity is left before consumption overtops the limit. Television broadcasts also release this forecast.

Responding to the electricity forecast, households are devising ways to save energy. Governments, municipalities, businesses, academics and NGOs are all providing tips and advice, and workshops for energy-saving are being held at many places.

Currently, major department stores and commodity shops are offering various products to help keep cool in summer heat while saving electricity. These product displays are probably appealing to the general public and raising awareness of energy-saving. Recently, when I visited a coffee house, I was surprised to find packs of powdered coffee with a sales pitch on a blackboard reading "iced coffee powder for further energy saving;" because the powder melts in cold water there is no need to boil water. An article in the JFS Newsletter released in July 2011 describes more details about energy-saving initiatives at the household level as well as support services and products being provided by governments and businesses.

Japan Adapts (and Remembers) Amid Power Shortages after 2011 Great Earthquake, Nuclear Accidents

On the other hand, the national and local governments are alerting people not to try too hard to save electricity, especially by refraining from using their air-conditioners, because this can easily cause health problems such as heat stroke. About 18,000 people throughout Japan were taken to hospitals by ambulance during July this year due to heat stroke, and 29 of them died. The number of people taken to hospitals or who have died is almost the same as the previous year. We need to pay more attention to this issue as predictions are for even hotter weather in coming weeks.

As noted above, compared to other regions, energy-saving effects are greater within the service areas of TEPCO and Tohoku Power Company. We can identify some possible success factors from examining the relevant differences, as follows: 1) strict legally enforceable rules with penalty charges, 2) continuous appeals from various actors and sectors for energy conservation and advice on specific actions, 3) a reinforced cycle of higher awareness, more businesses selling energy-saving products and services leading to more awareness and action, and 4) clearly visualized information on electricity consumption together with supply capacity.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that the experience of blackouts after the earthquake disaster strongly motivated people to save energy in both TEPCO and Tohoku Power Company service areas. People in these areas have experienced the difficulties of a sudden loss of electricity service, so they have learned how to live in a creative manner under limited conditions to avoid blackouts, while monitoring the maximum capacity as a daily routine.

Meanwhile, people seem to be reconsidering their lifestyles as they try to save energy. I often hear that people have discovered a more meaningful happiness in life that does not depend on electric power or other energy sources. They say "I try to stay in the same room with my children to reduce air-conditioner use in other rooms, and we have more conversations," "Children enjoy talking to each other while playing cards and board games instead of playing alone with computer games powered by electricity," "We grow green curtain plants outside our windows to reduce air-conditioner use, and have found joy in growing plants."

JFS hopes to encourage and support energy saving, which can function as a good opportunity to redirect ourselves toward a more sustainable and resilient lifestyle, economy and society while combating climate change. I think this is a better alternative to forcing people not to use electricity and endure the fierce summer heat.

In the last analysis, carbon dioxide emissions from Japan are estimated to increase in spite of the reduced electricity consumption resulting from efforts to save electricity. This is because thermal power generation using coal, etc. is rising in order to supplement power supply fall-offs due to suspension of nuclear power plant operations. Even though we might prevent power shortage crises, we could be accelerating the global warming crisis.

In such a situation, it is ever more important to shift towards a society where renewable energy generates our necessary electricity while we reduce our net electricity demand through energy-saving efforts in every sector. According to the Monthly Electricity Statistics issued by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), Japan achieved a 34 percent reduction in nuclear power generation and a 295 percent increase in renewable energy generation in May 2011, compared to 2010 levels in the same month.

Although the output of renewable energy sources accounts for only one percent of total energy production in Japan, a bill for a feed-in-tariff system to promote renewable energy is expected to win approval in the current Diet session. Many people and industries still advocate nuclear power generation or remain skeptical about renewable energies, yet we have to shift boldly and quickly towards a renewable energy-based economy that can support Japan as a truly sustainable society.

Written by Junko Edahiro

This information is provided with a grant from Artists Project Earth.