On Monday evening, customers at a Starbucks cafe in Tokyo’s Nakano ward sipped their lattes in the glow of a single row of lamps and a handful of small, battery-powered tea lights. Such scenes have become common in Tokyo as people across the Kanto region strive to conserve energy after Friday’s devastating Tohoku-Kanto Earthquake shut down nuclear power plants in Fukushima.
The electricity demand in Tokyo, explained Tokyo Vice-Mayor Naoki Inose, exceeds the supply by one-third, and a reduction of 25 percent is necessary to avert sudden, massive blackouts. As a result, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) began implementing temporary rolling power outages in areas of Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures on March 14th.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano exhorted the nation to “save electricity in the maximum possible way.”
Tokyo businesses immediately began curbing large-scale energy consumption. On Sunday night, department stores closed early, while shops and restaurants dimmed lights and turned off their electric signboards. In the usually neon-lit districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya, Tokyoites encountered a sight both familiar and surreal: Undeterred by the earthquake, crowds of revelers filled the streets as large swathes of darkness loomed overhead.
Individuals, too, have been doing their part to save energy. While in his office in the evening, Tokyo resident Yoshiteru Hamamatsu wears a jacket to avoid using the heater. Both at work and at home, Hamamatsu has been taking small measures to conserve energy.
“I’ve stopped using appliances such as electric carpets and I’m trying to use gas instead of electricity,” he says. “Of course, I turn off as many lights as I can in my apartment and at the office.”
Guidelines found on TEPCO’s website advise against using unnecessary electricity between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., the time when energy consumption levels rise sharply as people returning from work turn on their heating and home appliances.
“Saving energy during the crisis is vastly important,” observes Azby Brown, whose 2009 book “Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan” was released last week in Japanese. “This is a short-term emergency, and people can change their habits for a couple of weeks.”
So far, the conservation efforts have met with modest success. Although several areas in Kanto lost power for a few hours on Monday and Tuesday, TEPCO officials stated that many regions that had been scheduled for stoppages were able to avoid them thanks to reduced consumption levels. The outages, which are expected to continue through April, will only be carried out as necessary.
While no one relishes the idea of planned blackouts, those in the targeted areas are enduring them with a phlegmatic attitude. In Takanezawa, Tochigi, the blackout scheduled to last from 3:20 p.m. to 7 p.m. arrived unexpectedly in the last few minutes of the time slot and lasted around 30 minutes.
Like many, resident Tim Lindenschmidt had prepared for the outage by stocking up on water and dried goods, keeping a flashlight with extra batteries handy and making sure that his mobile phone was fully charged. In addition to the energy-saving habits he’s already adopted, Lindenschmidt refrained from using his lights and television throughout the scheduled blackout period, despite the apparent lack of disruption to the power supply earlier in the evening.
“Everyone I speak to is willing to shoulder inconvenience if it helps the effort,” he remarks.
Because energy to the western half of Japan is supplied via a separate, 60-hz electrical grid, only those in the Kanto and Tohoku regions are being urged to save energy for the time being. For the most part, it’s business as usual in Kansai, but Brown notes that the situation could change. Shortages of gasoline in some areas have forced gas stations to limit sales to 10 liters per vehicle. If supplies of fossil fuels need to be diverted to the stricken areas in the north, those in the Kansai region may also experience a decrease in services.
“It’s hard to tell if that will actually happen, but I think that people should always conserve anyway,” he says. “It’s a very important time to reassess how we use energy and where it comes from.”
Perhaps the new attitude of conservation could have unexpected positive outcomes in the future.
“People in Japan use too much energy,” reflects Hamamatsu. “This is the time for us to change our lives.”