The war in Ukraine has brought the problem of energy supply into focus and concerns about energy shortages are growing this winter. In response, the government is asking households to unplug appliances and reduce heating. But do such calls work? Are people likely to reduce their consumption?
apan’s response to losing a third of its power supply more than a decade ago may provide some answers. In March 2011, the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan led to a massive tsunami that destroyed the largest nuclear power plant in Fukushima and eventually led to the shutdown of all 50 nuclear power plant units. Nuclear power accounted for 30 percent of all electricity generation and 13 percent of all energy generation in Japan.
Faced with an energy shortage of unprecedented proportions, the country could only avert a national energy emergency through radical energy saving. An ambitious nationwide energy saving campaign called Setsuden was launched to save electricity. Through concerted efforts to switch off, the targets for reducing consumption were achieved and rolling power outages were avoided.
What can we learn from Japan in the face of possible power outages and energy shortages this winter? After Fukushima, the use of lighting, escalators and elevators in offices was reduced, while signs were hung in shop windows warning customers that the place was dimly lit and without air conditioning to save energy. For households and small businesses, Setsuden relied on voluntary reductions, but they were actively encouraged by the media and the government to do their part. Information leaflets were distributed to all schools, explaining the contribution each action would make.
However, large companies have been required to reduce consumption by at least 15 percent. As temperatures soared throughout the summer, dress codes in offices were relaxed and suits and ties were replaced with short-sleeved shirts and comfortable clothing to limit air-conditioning use. Staggered hours and days were introduced to avoid peak loads, and employees were encouraged to take off-season holidays.
Such a drastic reduction in energy consumption was not without negative consequences. The shift in working hours from weekdays to weekends meant higher childcare costs for working parents with young children. Almost a quarter of Japan’s population is 65 or older, and many have been put at risk by the shutdown of escalators. Elderly people disliked climbing the steep steps of hanging escalators in subway and train stations, while lack of street lighting and darker streets led to an increase in reported purse thefts.
But it was the fewer and slower trains that caused the most stress in a country known for extreme punctuality (one rail operator once issued a statement apologizing for a “really inexcusable” 25-second early arrival) . The slowness that swept through the country in saving energy was anathema to the Japanese.
While many of the measures Japan has implemented are similar to those Energy Secretary Eamon Ryan has proposed in the past to increase energy efficiency and savings here, the success of the response lies as much in social pressures as the measures Japan has taken in people.
Central to Japanese society is the notion of “mottainai,” or “too precious to waste,” a socially constructed moral norm that frowned upon waste and played a significant role in behavior change toward energy conservation among the Japanese and was similar to peer pressure, who ensured compliance with mask wearing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is unlikely that the Irish would succumb to such social pressures after two years of lockdowns – words like ‘austerity’ and ‘sacrifice’ are likely to ring hollow. But a more important element in the success of the conservation campaign in Japan was that large industry was targeted, rather than individuals.
Households played their part, but in a complementary rather than central role. In reality, individual household options are limited, particularly when it comes to peak loads, as school and work patterns offer very little flexibility. Requiring households to bear a disproportionate burden is unfair. Large companies need to be at the center as this is where significant savings can be made.
Ultimately, we need leadership. The recent round of increases in energy bills, particularly the government’s inability or unwillingness to address base charges, shows how ineffective it has been in controlling rising prices. Many families will struggle this winter.
In Tuesday’s budget, the government must spend heavily and support the most vulnerable in our society. There are no quick fixes. Unlike Covid, we are not all stuck together and those using most of the energy have the greatest responsibility to reduce their consumption.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/how-japan-kept-the-lights-on-when-tsunami-hit-power-supplies-42014789.html How Japan kept the lights on when the tsunami hit the power supply