An engineer’s view on setsuden

In spite of all the destruction caused by the March 11th earthquake and ensuing tsunamis, those of us fortunate enough to be living in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures seem to have come through it relatively unscathed.

The main concern here is not one related to physical damages, but rather one which most people would probably never have thought twice about had it not presented itself: rolling blackouts and the realization of just how utterly helpless we’ve become without a stable supply of power.

Just about anyone you care to ask will eagerly tell you about the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, but what many don’t seem to realize is that this wasn’t the only plant to shut down.

Of Japan’s 54 active nuclear reactors, 11 have reportedly gone offline as a result of the earthquake and bringing them back online isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. All told, with conventional reactors included, some estimates put Japan’s lost electrical capacity as high as 40% of the pre-March 11 total.

However, with most businesses closed through that first weekend and everyone’s attention on the rescue efforts, it really wasn’t until the following Monday when people returned to work that the severity of the power shortage began to reveal itself. A chaotic swirl of rumors about possible blackouts soon began to circulate and before long they became a reality with many people being caught unprepared.

SetsudenNow in our fourth week on, some of the coal and gas power plants have started to come back online and this, along with the arrival of spring, is helping to ease the burden. Basic goods such as milk, bread, bottled water, and batteries are slowly finding their way back onto store shelves, and people generally seem to be returning to their daily routines. Certain products are still conspicuously absent, but this seems to be due more to production difficulties relating to packaging rather than a lack of the actual product itself and should gradually get better.

All this means that although the past few weeks have seen some remarkable setsuden (energy-saving) efforts, old habits die hard and some wasteful consumption is creeping back in. A quick walk through central Tokyo at night will see a growing number of building signs illuminated, escalators running while virtually empty, and perhaps worst of all, TVs in electronics retailers left on with nobody watching. Apparently, dark televisions just don’t sell as well, energy crisis be damned.

So what can we expect to see over the coming weeks and months as rebuilding efforts gain momentum, seasons change, and the lure of creature comforts returns with their inexorable pull on us? Setsuden policies already in place will carry on, though these may begin to fade away unless we are presented with constant reminders of the situation.

With the advent of summer and soaring temperatures, the blackouts are expected to return bigger and badder than ever. Even with scaled-back use of air conditioners relative to normal, total peak demand forecasts are currently around 55 – 60 million kW, while expected supply will be around 46.5 million kW, or about 15 – 20% short. In fact, depending on summer heat, progress of rebuilding efforts, and activity in the manufacturing sector, even these estimates could prove to be woefully inadequate.

SetsudenThe government and other associations such as Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) are currently examining a variety of initiatives that may help alleviate this shortage, both voluntary and mandatory. Some ideas currently being considered include the introduction of daylight savings time (a perennial favorite it seems), 4-day work weeks, extended summer holidays, rotating weekends for firms in the same industry, and the possibility of enforced consumption limits with fines for violators. Cool Biz will almost certainly be featured, though thermostats will have to be set considerably higher than 28 degrees.

An optimist’s view of the long term sees a significant expansion of Japan’s renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal, as well as the eventual implementation of smart grid technologies for managing supply, demand, and storage. The government will open its coffers and provide all manner of subsidies for energy efficient devices, and the “Green” industry will flourish.

For those cynics amongst us, or simply for those familiar with the government’s propensity for inaction, the future likely holds the rapid development and re-commissioning of both fossil fuel and nuclear power plants as a stopgap measure, which will eventually become permanent as the “good enough” mindset takes over and vague promises of additional precautions soothe our nagging concerns. Just like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, if we can’t see the problem first hand we can just act like it doesn’t exist.

More than likely, the reality will lie somewhere between the two extremes, but even the best case scenario isn’t all that pleasant when one considers the implications of so much spending. Everybody will have to pitch in and do their part, regardless of how big or small your typical consumption may be.

(MIKE GERVAIS Viterum Consulting LLC)

Here are some bright (and generally low-tech) ideas on how to help:

Do an internet search for “energy saving tips” for common suggestions like turning off lights, adjusting fridge and air conditioner settings, and avoiding stand-by loads.

Learn to love walking up and down stairs rather than using elevators. A good general rule is two flights up or three flights down, though do feel free to do more.

Spend time outdoors, away from artificial lighting and air conditioning. Get some sun and exercise, or even sit under a tree with your laptop and a portable solar charger if you just can’t stand being unplugged.

Go to bed and get up early to take advantage of sunlight. Not having the lights, TV, and computer on will also cut down your overall consumption. While you’re at it, why not read all those books you’ve been meaning to get to?