Monday, September 26, 2011
In Japan, the Summer of Setsuden
After a long, hot and dark summer in Japan, the days are cooler and the nights are brighter. For this the Japanese can give thanks not just to September, but also to setsuden, or “energy saving,” an ambitious and strikingly successful campaign to conserve electricity after the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear-plant disasters.
The destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi plant led Japan to shut down all but 15 of its 54 nuclear reactors. This was a huge blow to a country that depends heavily on nuclear power and has made scant investments in renewable energy. As summer approached, the only way to avoid a national energy emergency was through drastic conservation. And so the Japanese powered down.
The government required big power users to reduce peak consumption by 15 percent.
Utilities pleaded with consumers to pitch in. Industries, offices and private households turned lights off and thermostats up, above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Office workers traded suits and ties for kariyushi shirts, the Okinawan version of aloha wear. They moved their shifts to early mornings and weekends, climbed the stairs and worked by the dim glow of computer screens and LED lamps. Families stopped doing laundry every day; department stores and subway stations turned off the air-conditioning. Posters of happy cartoon light bulbs urged everybody to pitch in.
Setsuden worked. This month, the government lifted restrictions on power use, weeks ahead of schedule. Tokyo lit up again, having avoided blackouts and brownouts by keeping peak use well below last year’s levels.
The challenges are far from over. As Japan debates when or whether to bring nuclear plants back to life, it is firing up old oil- and gas-powered plants, a setback in its battle to curb greenhouse emissions. Some worry that the setsuden spirit will wear off this winter.
No one would ever want to go through what the Japanese have had to suffer through this year. Still, Japan has shown what can be done, quickly, to overcome an energy crisis. It’s a good lesson for the United States, with its fragile electric grid, huge power needs and raging fossil-fuel addiction: Consumption doesn’t always have to go up. New York Times
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