Intelligent Energy

What's keeping the lights on in Tokyo?

Posting in Energy

Manic work schedules are giving way to weekends, air conditioners are avoiding the big chill. Japan is discovering energy conservation after closing two thirds of its nuclear power. Can it last?

It’s been five months since Japan shut down two thirds of the nuclear plants that provide 30 percent of its electricity, and yet at the height of a sweltering summer, the lights and air conditioners are still on, as one report notes.

How is the country managing that in the wake of the Fukushima disaster that prompted it to close all but 17 of its 54 nuclear reactors? Through energy conservation, according to a an opinion piece in the Financial Times (subscription might be necessary)

“One of the reasons its economy has been able to soldier on is that there is a massive energy-saving drive,” the article states. “Office air-conditioners are not blasting at their normal freezing-cold temperatures. Buildings close at a reasonable hour, obliging salarymen to forego hours of masochistic overtime. (One suspects productivity has not suffered terribly as a result.) Companies have even reinvented the weekend. Toyota’s working week now runs from Sunday to Wednesday, helping to spread electricity usage more evenly across the seven-day cycle.”

And, as we noted yesterday, the Japanese in June purchased more LED light bulbs than incandescents. LEDs use only about 20 percent of the energy of traditional bulbs. The Japanese government has calculated that the country could eliminate 13 nuclear reactors if it replaced all of its 1.6 million lightbulbs with LEDs.

The FT article points out that “demand in the Tokyo region has fallen by 10-20 per cent too to an absolute peak of 49,000MW,” and notes that, “so far, the summer has been blackout-free.”

The big question is to what extent Japan can continue to cut energy consumption while sustaining the economy. The answer implies that at some point, the country will have to either re-open nuclear plants, or build either more fossil fuel or renewable plants. Fossil fuel plants would come at a cost including CO2 emissions plus an estimated $37 billion if Japan were to shut down all of its nuclear plants, the FT says.

Renewables would, at least in the short term, probably increase the price that Japanese consumers pay for electricity, which Japanese industry complains is already twice the price of electricity in China and S. Korea.

But over time renewable costs would decline as more economies of scale build. And while Japan has strangled a once promising solar scene through unfavorable changes to feed-in tariffs, one Japanese Member of Parliament, Taro Kono, argues that the country is well suited for other renewables.

As the article points out, “Japan has the world’s third-highest potential for geothermal power and its sixth-highest for wave power, he says. He reckons that, through a combination of energy conservation and more renewable energy, Japan could scrap nuclear power within two decades.”

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has suggested phasing out nuclear altogether. Japan is shaping up as a showcase for the future of energy policy. What do you think?

Photo: trialx.com

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure