Dear Alice,
Everywhere I go now I see signs for setsuden (conserving electricity). There's a notice at my local convenience store explaining that the lights are down for setsuden. My post office has shortened its hours for setsuden. And the subway is running with fewer trains — you guessed it — for setsuden. So, what the heck is setsuden, really? Is this different from run-of-the-mill energy conservation? What should I be doing to help?

Deborah N., Tokyo

Dear Deborah,

Normally I would take a question like this to TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, but they're pretty busy right now. I think we'd all prefer they focus on the crisis at the nuclear power plant rather than talk to me.

Instead I paid a visit to Energy Conservation Center, Japan (ECCJ), where Masato Nojiri confirmed that the current call for setsuden is a little different from the usual push for shōene (energy conservation). "There are situations where using electricity is more efficient than other fuels," he explained. "So under normal circumstances, when the goal is to reduce overall energy consumption, we would urge people to use the electric option. But now, when we have a critical shortage of electricity in part of the country, the focus is on doing anything and everything we can to reduce electricity consumption."

I assume my readers are plugged into the news, and know that a huge earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan on March 11, knocking out roughly a quarter of the electricity-generating capacity for the power companies that serve 53 million people in Tokyo, the Kanto plain and Tohoku. In the wake of the disaster there's been a massive effort to reduce demand for electricity to levels that can be met. The alternative is scheduled rolling blackouts, or worse, sudden widespread blackouts from which it's difficult to restore power.

That's where setsuden comes in. Although all sectors need to conserve, including manufacturing and retail, let's focus here on conservation at home. In Japan, homes account for more than a third of total electricity consumption, up drastically since 1973 when households drew just 18.7 percent of electric power. Household demand has more than doubled with the proliferation for electronic conveniences for the home.

The most important thing, Nojiri advised, is to know the periods of peak demand and use as little electricity as possible during those hours. Right now, in these balmy spring months when little heating and cooling is needed, there are two peaks in demand: between 7 and 10 in the morning, when people are getting up, and from 6 to 7 in the evening when they come home. So what you don't want to do when you walk in the door from work is throw on all the lights, turn on the TV and computer, open the refrigerator door repeatedly and start a load of laundry.

When the really hot weather sets in, from July to September, the period of peak demand will shift to the middle of the afternoon when air conditioners are running full blast. Much of the demand then is to cool office buildings, but if you're at home during the day, you should use as little electricity as possible between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

You can even check online to see how close demand is getting to capacity, and adjust your usage accordingly. TEPCO has information in English , but I prefer the way the same information is presented on Yahoo! Japan. It's posted as a bar graph on, stating usage as a percentage of capacity. Even if you can't read Japanese, you can tell at a glance when things are getting dicey and shut something off.

I should note that the shortage doesn't affect western Japan, which has adequate power. The current there is of a different frequency, making it difficult to transfer electricity from the west to the areas experiencing the shortage. So while conservation in Kansai and Kyushu won't relieve the shortfall in Tokyo and Tohoku, it's always good to conserve electricity. I encourage all readers to adopt these simple power-saving measures:

Reset the thermostat

Even one degree makes a difference. ECCJ recommends we set our air conditioners to 28 degrees Celsius this summer. And if you haven't cleaned the filter on your electric heating and cooling units, now is the time. Getting the muck out can reduce electricity use by as much as 6 percent.

Lose the remote

Any appliance that has a remote control (televisions, air conditioners, stereos, etc.) uses electricity even when it isn't operating because it is standing by for a signal from the remote. Electricity consumed this way, and by computers and water heaters set on standby, is called taiki denryoku (standby power) and accounts for 6 percent of household electricity consumption in Japan. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates that the average Japanese household spends ¥6,270 a year just to keep appliances on standby. You can save electricity by turning off the main switch on the appliance, or unplugging the unit when not in use. It won't hurt anything to do so.

Turn down your toilet

More than 70 percent of Japanese homes have an onsui senjō benza, which is a fancy way of saying a toilet that washes your bum with lovely warm water, and toilets account for 3.9 percent of household electricity consumption. ECCJ recommends using the electric options only in the winter months, or at least setting the seat heater and water-warming functions as low as possible. Just closing the lid when not in use conserves heat in the seat and can add up to yearly savings of 34.90 kilowatt hours or ¥770.

Tame your inner clean freak

As I've reported previously in this column (September 2010), 70 percent of Japanese women do laundry every day. And while washing machines don't account for a major portion of household electricity consumption, I suspect there's a lot of waste when frequent launderers run loads with just a few items. ECCJ recommends cutting back on laundry frequency and running the machine only when a full load has accumulated. I'd go a step further and call for a slight relaxation of Japan's notoriously high standards of cleanliness, if only for the duration of the current electricity shortage. It is possible to use a bath towel more than once before laundering. Jeans can be worn several times before washing. And if there was ever a time for this country to turn its underpants inside out and wear them one more time, it's now.