National Geographic Daily News
Solar panels in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Japan.

Solar panels like these on the rooftop of Itochu headquarters in Tokyo would become more common in Japan under Prime Minister Naoto Kan's ambitious renewable energy plan. But this summer, the emphasis is on conservation.

Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi, Bloomberg/Getty Images

Chuck McCutcheon

For National Geographic News

Published July 7, 2011

At Tokyo's Meiji Gakuin University, professor Keiko Tanaka has been teaching classes with half as much lighting as usual and with less reliance on computers and other electricity-hogging tools. She now often gets out her chalk and eraser to use the blackboard.

But with tsunami-torn Japan's electricity system struggling, she wonders whether her fellow citizens will commit to the level of energy savings the nation needs.

(Related: Japan Tsunami: 20 Unforgettable Pictures)

"Japan is a country where 18-year-old girls take the elevator to go up a single flight of stairs because they don't want to sweat," she said. "It is a country where most toilet seats are heated, and there is an electric noisemaker in the women's toilet to mask the noise. People have really gotten used to creature comfort at very high energy costs."

Those costs are under scrutiny as perhaps never before, due to the loss of the nuclear plant Fukushima Daiichi and other grid infrastructure damage in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in a report this week that Japan "is in the midst of perhaps one of the most severe electricity shortfalls in history."

(Related: "Japan Battles to Avert Nuclear Power Plant Disaster")

Japan has scrambled to repair infrastructure and increase its imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), but the problem could get worse, the IEA warned, due to political backlash against nuclear energy, which before March provided one-third of the nation's electricity.

In the long run, Prime Minister Naoto Kan has indicated a push for renewables, setting a new goal of 10 million solar-powered homes by 2020, and abandoning ambitious nuclear expansion plans. But Japan—which has no fossil fuel resources of its own—faces an immediate test in the sweltering months of July and August, when air conditioning demand typically strains the grid. Japan's government says its citizens need to reduce their electricity demand this summer by 15 percent, and in Tokyo, the goal is 25 percent.

The IEA says Japan faces a challenge in meeting these goals, since—heated toilets aside—its economy already is far more energy-efficient than that of other nations. To make even greater strides, "Japan will have to undertake deep energy-efficiency and conservation measures," the IEA report concludes.

Belt-Tightening and Tie-Loosening

Faced with potential crisis this summer, Japan has attempted to ramp up the Cool Biz campaign it has promoted since 2005. Re-branding it Super Cool Biz, Japan is calling for offices to keep temperatures at 28°C (85°F), when summer high temperatures in Tokyo can surpass 30°C (86°F) with high humidity. Office workers are encouraged to shed their business suits in favor of sandals, khakis, and pedal pushers.

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced it planned to lead by example on energy savings—reducing the use of printers and copiers in its offices, deactivating automatic doors, reducing the number of elevators in services, and adopting early work hours.

But some advocates of saving energy already are frustrated. Taro Kono, a member of the House of Representatives in Japan's Diet, the national parliament, said he has been trying to encourage telecommuting, but the effort has fallen short of his expectations because many businesses remain unwilling to relinquish the ability to physically see what workers are accomplishing.

Japan's energy consumption per unit of GDP is 20 percent below the world average and 30 percent below that of the United States, according to the World Resources Institute's widely followed EarthTrends data. Japan's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE) estimates that Japan improved its energy efficiency 37 percent in the past 30 years.

The IEA, in its report entitled "Saving Electricity in a Hurry," said it remains unclear how much farther small and medium-sized Japanese businesses will cut demand voluntarily. The IEA said many energy-saving measures at those companies require shifting operations to evenings and weekends—something that will require unions' approval and could disrupt many parents' schedules.

Post-Tsunami, an Anti-Nuclear Wave

Adding to Japan's electricity shortfall woes is a growing issue due to the nation's long-standing requirement that its nuclear power plants undergo routine maintenance every 13 months, with politicians in the plants' regional prefectures providing final approval before restart. The restarts typically are approved routinely, but all have been delayed since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. More as a result of these holdups than earthquake damage, only 19 of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are now in operation.

(Related: "How is Japan's Nuclear Disaster Different?")

Kyushu Electric, which provides power to southwest Japan, received a welcome bit of news this month, when a local mayor approved its proposal to restart the reactors at its Genkai nuclear power plant in Saga prefecture. Those reactors had been shut down for maintenance since last winter. The final decision lies with the prefecture's governor, Yasushi Furukawa, who expects to make a decision by mid-July.

Energy experts say that if Furukawa decides against a restart, other governors could follow suit—setting in motion a chain of events that could idle all of Japan's nuclear reactors within a year.

Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda this week sought to reassure citizens of the reactors' safety, pledging that the government would order stress-testing at all the plants.

Renewable Energy's Rising Sun

It remains to be seen whether the stress testing in the coming weeks will succeed in reassuring Japan's citizens on nuclear plants' ability to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis, but it is clear that opponents have been able to seize on the Fukushima disaster to urge rapid expansion of alternative sources.

They have argued that Japan's rich geothermal resources—with nearly 200 volcanoes and some 28,000 hot springs—could provide more than 80,000 megawatts of generating capacity, enough to meet half of the country's electricity needs. In addition, a 2009 study published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that the country's land-based wind resources could provide another half of its electricity.

Japan has aggressively sought to upgrade its solar potential—a cause taken up by Kan before he survived a no-confidence vote earlier this month. The country has set a goal of increasing solar photovoltaics, mostly in rooftop panels, from 3,500 megawatts in 2010 to 53,000 megawatts by 2030. Beyond Kan's target of powering 10 million homes by 2020, there would be enough solar photovoltaics to power 18 million Japanese homes by 2030.

Masayoshi Son, the founder of Softbank Mobile and the country's wealthiest man, has drawn substantial attention for his plan to start a research foundation for renewable energy, bolstered by millions of his own start-up money. So far, 35 of Japan's 47 prefectures have signed on as founding members.

"The means to do this are certainly in abundance," said Andrew DeWit, a professor of public finance at Tokyo's Rikkyo University who studies the country's energy situation. "This sounds like idealistic talk, but I really think Japan, given that it's got all this pent-up demand for renewables, could see in over a year or two a truly astounding emplacement of renewable capacity."

DeWit acknowledged, however, that Japan's nuclear energy proponents will not abandon that energy source easily. "There's all kinds of rhetoric—that wind farms are too noisy, they kill birds and so on," he said. "The energy economy of this country is going to be decided over the next few months . . . The key things seem to me to be the increasing heat of summer and how disastrous this nuclear problem is."

(Related: Pictures: A Rare Look inside Fukushima Daiichi)

With the future of Japan's energy supply in question, the focus for most citizens now is on cutting demand. Kazuto Tsuchiya, a student at the University of Southern California who is spending the summer with family in Suzaka in central Japan, said his relatives put off an earlier decision to buy an air conditioner.

"We are going to bear the heat of summer with round paper fans and Japanese folding fans," he said. Tschiya sees his fellow citizens neither resisting conservation nor enthusiastically embracing it.

"It's more like people think that it's 'sho ga nai' in Japanese, meaning, 'We have no choice, we have to accept,' '' he said.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

(Related: "Is Armenia's Nuclear Plant The World's Most Dangerous?")

2 comments
Gayle Pellicano
Gayle Pellicano

I taught with Keiko Tanaka at Meiji Gakuin University, and I feel I need to shed some real light on the matter. As I was usually the last one to leave at the end of the day, sadly, I would walk down the hall and turn off the lights to empty classrooms, including Ms Tanaka's. While Ms Tanaka has done a bit of work for the Tohoku region, I often walked into what I thought was an empty classroom to turn off the lights, only to find Ms Tanaka teaching a small group of students - with all of the lights on. In fact, she once came to my classroom and admonished me for having the lights off and then turned all of them on. I turned them off and stated the students should make the choice. The classroom has large windows that allow plenty of natural light in for the students to read and actively participate in class. 


Explaining to the students the gravity of a situation is important. Giving them a choice gives them a sense of responsibility, an important social skill. A skill I hope they use in their futures. 

We've learned a lot these past few years...in real and natural light.



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