Saving energy the Japanese way

An earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0, a tsunami, and then the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant: on March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by a triple catastrophe. The day went down in history as a beacon for nuclear power – the long-term consequences for Japan’s energy system, which was turned upside down in one fell swoop, received less international attention.

With the disaster, the energy producer TEPCO, which is responsible for the Tokyo region and thus almost 30 million electricity customers, suddenly lost around 20 percent of its electricity generation capacity. Not only the damage to several nuclear reactors was responsible, but also to the infrastructure for electricity transport and thermal power plants. The gradual shutdown of almost all of the country’s nuclear reactors, which took place in the months following the disaster, was also significant. By the time of the super meltdown, Japan had covered more than a third of its energy needs with nuclear power.

Humid summer as a threat to the power system

With imports of liquid gas and oil, the construction of new thermal power plants and energy imports, the resulting energy gap was largely closed relatively quickly. However, the energy-hungry metropolitan area of ​​Tokyo in particular, with its 35 million inhabitants, was heading for a tricky phase: the muggy summer. Due to the intensive use of air conditioning, this regularly pushed and still pushes the power grid to its limits.

Reuters/Kyodo

Japan is still suffering from the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster

Because TEPCO was unable to cover the forecast peak power consumption, a broad campaign to save electricity was launched under the slogan “Setsuden”, which had a great response, thanks to a broad campaign mobilizing companies and private individuals – and the Tokyo cityscape in between significantly changed.

Half dark Tokyo

The streets, otherwise lit up with neon signs, sank into semi-darkness, lighting was dimmed or switched off, and the otherwise hectic public transport was cut down by timetable cuts and slower driving speeds. In many places, escalators and lifts stood still, devices presented in electronics stores remained switched off. The countless vending machines in the streets of Tokyo and the pachinko arcades with their shrill lights and noises came under criticism, and the latter were finally ordered to be closed for three days a month.

People in a dimly lit supermarket in Tokyo, 2012

Reuters/Kyodo

Unnecessary light sources were switched off

The program also had an impact on private households, which were encouraged to take the same energy-saving measures that are also known in this country – from forgoing air conditioning in favor of fans and fans to recommending the use of LED lamps and insulating rooms.

However, restrictions on bulk consumers, trade and commerce had the greatest effect. In July, they were committed to a three-month energy saving target of 15 percent, and “exemplary” Japanese companies were even spurred on to a savings target of 30 percent. As a result, many companies made significant and sustained efforts to save energy, and the production of energy-saving electrical appliances was also promoted.

Elderly people in a Japanese pachinko arcade

Getty Images/Issei Kato

A pachinko hall in energy-hungry Japan

Special leave and light clothing

The measures were quite far-reaching – and also to be seen in the context of Japanese work culture. Among other things, the companies were advised to move their production to times when the power grid was less busy, such as nights and weekends. For example, the auto industry turned Thursday and Friday into weekends during the summer months.

The start of service for many employees was staggered in order to better distribute the load on the power grid. Some companies even sent their staff on an extended summer vacation – an extremely atypical act in Japanese work culture. The Environment Ministry’s “Super Cool Biz” program also seems somewhat bizarre. This stipulates that offices and work rooms can only be cooled to 28 degrees Celsius, so that employees can wear light clothing instead of a suit and tie to avoid heat stroke. This example also shows the social pressure associated with energy saving measures.

In any case, the “Setsuden” savings program bore fruit: electricity consumption fell by six percent in 2011 and by eight percent in the following year. Despite the still damaged energy infrastructure, there were no power outages during the summer months. Summer peak consumption fell from 60 gigawatts in July 2010 to 49 gigawatts in August 2011. In 2013, energy saving effects could still be measured – and many measures were adapted for the winter, which also puts a strain on Japan’s energy system due to the need for heating.

problems up to date

Of course, the success of this campaign, which is now a decade old, does little to change the fact that Japan has not been able to put its power system on a new footing since Fukushima. The nuclear power plants could not be replaced sustainably, and the move away from fossil energy sources is progressing slowly despite the climate crisis. The country is currently also struggling with the fact that other countries are also targeting liquefied natural gas (LNG) due to the Ukraine war and the price is rising.

Just this summer, Japan is struggling with a severe heatwave that is putting the power grid to the test again. The government had to warn of a power shortage and called on the population to save energy. Despite the global situation, there are currently no signs of measures as far-reaching as in 2011 – at least not yet.

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