Energy angst: Japan's post-tsunami power crisis

Japan is facing a hot and sweaty summer and the probability of power blackouts as a result of its earthquake-damaged nuclear plants. More importantly, it is facing a tough decision of how green to go as it rebuilds.
Consumers shop in near darkness in a Tokyo department store, its lights dimmed to conserve energy in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Energy use is down at least 15 per cent in an effort to avoid blackouts and power shortages. (Reuters/Kyodo)

Spring is still in the air in the Japanese capital — the trees heavy with new leaves, the nights cool and clear. But Brent McCain, a former Montrealer, is already working up a sweat about what's to come.

"I am dreading the summer more than ever," says McCain, a marketing director here in Tokyo for the pharmaceutical company, Sanofi. Like millions of people in this country, he is more concerned than usual about the scorching days and barely tolerable nights of a Japanese summer.

Craig Dale is a senior producer with CBC's The National and is currently on loan to NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster, in Tokyo. (Photo Katie Van Camp)

Craig Dale is a senior producer with CBC's The National and is currently on loan to NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster, in Tokyo. (Craig Dale/CBC)

In his case, part of the anxiety is because his wife and two children are heading back to Canada for the summer to escape the heat. But escape is not really an option for the vast majority of Japan's 127 million people who are coming face-to-face with the country's worst energy shortage since the 1973 oil crisis.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami not only disabled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, but the resulting safety concerns closed a number of other reactors around this island nation. By June, forced or planned shutdowns will mean an estimated 65 per cent of this country's nuclear power capacity will be offline.

"Japan is already one of the most energy-efficient countries on the planet," points out Paul Scalise of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus, in Tokyo.

With little margin for error, he says "that makes the situation all the more difficult as we approach the hot summer months."

Rolling blackouts

The problem is especially troubling in Tokyo and its surrounding area, which is serviced by the operator of Fukushima Daiichi, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

Japanese consumers have been pedalling to work and buying fans and lightweight mesh clothes in attempts to conserve energy. (Associated Press)

Even though TEPCO is firing up thermal power plants and pumped-storage hydroelectric generators (which use electricity to pump water to higher elevations), it's expected to run well short of demand and lead to rolling blackouts.

"The biggest concern for us will always be our factory [northwest of Tokyo], which produces medicine for millions of patients," says McCain. "This factory has been running at 100 per cent capacity. We will need to make allowances if there are blackouts."

But a sudden loss in power isn't just a mere inconvenience, particularly in a country where summer temperatures can close in on 40 C. It could also cost Japan's already struggling businesses dearly.

"The machines are running right now, but if the line stops, all the parts being processed will go to waste," Keiichi Hamano told NHK, Japan's public broadcaster.

Hamano owns a metal processing factory in the Tokyo area that makes parts for medical devices and the semiconductor industry. "Losing electricity would be a serious problem. It would significantly affect our output."

A wave of sacrifice

To try to avoid blackouts, the government is asking everyone in eastern and northeastern Japan to cut power consumption by 15 per cent, a request that has prompted a wave of change.

Automakers will operate their lines on weekends and close them on two weekdays, to share power.

Businesses that make perishable products are buying or renting generators. IT companies are relocating energy-hungry servers. Coca-Cola Japan is turning off the lights in 250,000 of its vending machines and putting their cooling systems on timers.

Then there's the government's "Cool Biz" program, which encourages offices to set air conditioners at 28 C and workers to forgo jackets and ties in favour of short-sleeved shirts.

This year, the six-year-old campaign is being called "Super Cool Biz" because the ministry of the environment, for one, is allowing its employees to dress way down to polo shirts, cotton pants and sandals. It's hoping the private sector will follow suit.

Retailers are hoping to cash in by selling sweat-absorbent T-shirts and undershirts, as well as jackets made of mesh-like fabric.

Energy shift

There's no question the Japanese know how to pitch in during times of crisis.

Following the March 11 disaster, they diligently went about conserving energy, especially in the Tokyo area, where offices cut consumption and the video and music light show at the famous Shibuya scramble-crossing faded to black.

The question for the future, though, is how green should Japan go? The government is suggesting a return to nuclear power but the anti-nuclear lobby is out in full force. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Power consumption has been at least 15 per cent lower than usual, according to TEPCO and other sources. But the question is, when the temperature climbs above 30 C for days on end and the country's army of air conditioners kick in in earnest, will frugality and load shifting be enough?

The other issue here, beyond the anxiety of the summer's looming power shortfall, is nuclear energy.

March 11 shook the foundation of Japan's energy policy and is forcing this resource-poor nation to re-evaluate its decades-old promotion of nuclear power.

"Under the current energy policy, by the year 2030 more than 50 per cent of Japan's electricity will come from nuclear power generation and 20 per cent from renewable resources," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said earlier this month.

"However, we now have to go back to the drawing board and conduct a fundamental review."

Rethinking the country's energy options has given hope to those who believe Japan should expand its renewable energy supply by investing in solar, wind, and geothermal power.

But Scalise, for one, believes the prime minister's statement was more about winning political points than making economic or technical sense.

"Nuclear power costs TEPCO 6.1 yen ($0.07) per kilowatt-hour; hydroelectric costs 7.9 yen ($0.09) per kWh; thermal power costs 9.1 yen ($0.11) per kWh; and renewable a whopping 30.5 yen ($0.36) per kWh," Scalise notes.

As in any country, renewable energy here faces hurdles.

Geothermal power would appear to be an attractive avenue, given there are more than 100 active volcanoes and thousands of hot springs. But some of the best locations are in national parks, so exploring that option could be problematic for the green lobby in particular.

Offshore wind farms also seem worthy of consideration, but they would likely draw the ire of fisherman.

Still, with many Japanese focused on the impact of their energy needs, now seems to be the time to consider all possibilities.

"In the wake of Fukushima Daiichi, what do we value more, energy security or energy efficiency?" asks Scalise.

"Stable energy supplies at affordable prices or uncertain green energy technologies that come with a higher price tag?" There are no easy answers to these questions, he says, but they must be asked.