Few countries have been dealt such a tragic combination of natural and manmade disasters as Japan. The part of the disaster that I understand is the shortage of electricity. I wrote a book, Saving Electricity in a Hurry, in 2005 while working at the International Energy Agency.1 In the book, I explained the measures that a government must take in order to quickly reduce electricity demand while protecting the economy.

 

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Ironically, I described a 2003 electricity shortage in Tokyo, when Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was forced to switch off most of its nuclear power plants. A cool summer and just enough conservation got Tokyo through the summer without a blackout. But the present crisis is much, much, worse and I simply don't know what will happen; there are too many unknowns on both the supply and demand sides to confidently predict the outcome during the next 18 months. I can imagine a scenario of Japan just squeaking through with a combination of massive conservation, a cool summer, and no further losses on the generation side. Unfortunately, I can more easily imagine other scenarios where one or all of these three don't deliver. Tokyo won't be a happy place if that happens.

 

TEPCO’s customers haven’t been sitting on their hands; they have already cut electricity demand by roughly 25%. This is a huge drop but still not enough to confidently weather the summer peak period without blackouts.2

 

To date, many of the conservation programs have been poorly organized and badly implemented. Homes and businesses have cut electricity use as a result of civic duty and many factories have not restarted owing to unreliable power. Perhaps coordination will improve as the government and industrial associations establish guidelines. One obstacle is the widespread distrust of TEPCO; it is not a credible institution to organize and operate a massive conservation campaign. Lack of faith in the utility is a common problem in nearly all electricity crises, not just in Japan.

 

What should Tokyo do to further reduce electricity use? The government must recognize that the power shortage is a national emergency and create an independent entity, equipped with wide powers, to organize and manage the conservation campaign. (This is what Brazil did and it successfully cut power use 20% in two months.)

 

- Alan Meier

 

1. This book can be downloaded for free at www.iea.org/textbase/nppdf/free/2005/savingElec.pdf.
2. You can watch this 50 Gigawatt balancing act in real-time at www.tepco.co.jp.cache.yimg.jp/en/forecast/html/index-e.html.

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