Japan squeezes each watt

TOKYO – With Japan suffering from electricity shortages this summer, Michio Kuniyuki has stepped up his conservation patrols of Rikkyo University.

As he has done these past six summers, Kuniyuki spends his days making sure the lights and air conditioning have not been left on in empty classrooms. Whenever he finds students in a classroom, he turns off the air conditioning and inquires about the lights.

“Should I leave them on or can I turn them off?” Kuniyuki asked one day.

“Uh,” one young man hesitated, giving Kuniyuki the opening for his next move.

Click. Off.

Now backed by a colleague newly assigned to the patrols, Kuniyuki has been able to strategically map out their routes throughout the campus and outwit students who used to switch the lights back on as soon as they saw his back.

“It’s doubly effective,” he said.

Already a leader in conservation, Japan consumes about half as much energy per capita as the U.S., according to the U.N. Population Fund. But it has been pushed to even greater lengths since the nuclear disaster even as it tries to revive its economy. The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and the resulting backlash against nuclear power have left only 17 out of Japan’s 54 reactors on line as the nation steels itself for August, the hottest month of the year.

Preliminary figures indicate that regions under conservation mandates have been able to meet reduction targets and even exceed them, providing a possible model of conservation’s potential when concerns about global warming are mounting. In the Tokyo area, the government is pushing to cut electricity use by 15 percent between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. weekdays to prevent blackouts.

Japanese are bringing to the conservation drive a characteristic combination of national fervour, endurance, sloganeering, technology and social coercion.

A “Super Cool Biz” campaign, which builds on the option of no-tie summer business attire begun in 2005, now encourages salary-men to dress down even further by wearing polo shirts or the traditional aloha-style shirts worn on the Japanese tropical islands of Okinawa.

To back up the call to conserve, electricity reports that forecast the day’s power supply and track demand in real time have become as much a part of this summer as the scorching sun and humid air. They are delivered along with the weather on the morning news and announced along with the next stop aboard some trains.

Government alerts are also sent to subscribers’ cell phones if overall demand nears capacity, prodding households to turn down the air conditioner or, better yet, turn it off altogether.

The forecasts, available since the start of the month on the web-sites of power companies and in the media, show the amount of electricity being used in a utility’s service area, as well as the consumption for the same day last year.

In the Tokyo area, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima plant, issues a forecast in the evening for the next day, then refines the forecast the following morning depending on the changing weather. During the day, TEPCO updates electricity use every five minutes, in a bar graph that predictably shows use rising steadily in the morning and peaking in the afternoon.

In the past week, forecasts and actual use have hovered around 75 percent of capacity, thanks to unseasonably cool weather brought on by a typhoon. Yukihiko Tayama, a TEPCO manager specialising in demand and supply, said that so far this summer, overall demand had yet to come dangerously close to capacity, and so it was unclear whether the real-time reports would influence people’s behaviour in a crunch. The real test lies ahead in August, Tayama said.

Local governments are holding contests soliciting conservation ideas; households are cutting back beyond the hours during which conservation is in effect, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and companies have shifted days off to weekdays and undertaken other measures not only to avoid penalties – maximum penalties are less than $13,000 – but also to contribute to the national effort.

At Meiwa Rubber, a manufacturer of printing equipment with factories in Tokyo, lights were dimmed, the use of hot water was restricted, and the air conditioning was curtailed. An employee tracked the factory’s real-time power use, using software supplied by TEPCO. If demand neared the company’s maximum use for the year before, orange lights flashed on the factory and management floors; if demand threatened to outstrip maximum use, red lights flashed, leading employees to shut down three air-conditioning units.

“The government’s figure is 15 per cent, but we’re aiming to cut by 25 per cent,” said Tatsuo Nakahara, 63, the company’s administrative manager. He added that in the months after the March disaster, the company had already succeeded in conserving 20 per cent.

Offices here, already balmy by U.S. standards, have been directed to set the room temperature to 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit, though the real temperature, especially on hot days, has climbed above 86 degrees in many offices.

Weekly magazines are making sure there are no cheaters. Several have sent reporters armed with thermometers to the offices of those popularly considered responsible for the nuclear disaster, particularly the triumvirate of TEPCO, nuclear regulators and pro-nuclear politicians, widely seen as collusive. The nuclear establishment was also enduring a sweaty summer, the weeklies reported with great satisfaction.

But perhaps the checks were hardly necessary given the power of social disapproval here.

Mitsuharu Taniyama, 73, the owner of a small insurance business, has directed his staff to dim the lights at their office on the second floor of a small building in Yokohama.

“As you can see, our office is surrounded by windows, so after dark people walking outside would notice if it was all lit up inside here,” Taniyama said. “Now I would feel guilty.”

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Sign in, or subscribe