Cutting power at night may be overdoing it

by Minoru Matsutani

Staff Writer

The hot, humid summer is here and people and industries face the huge challenge of curbing electricity consumption to avoid large-scale blackouts stemming from power plant shutdowns amid the radiation crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear complex.

Many individuals and businesses are complying with recommendations, legally binding for large industries, by the government and the power industry to cut electricity use. Some are meanwhile taking the curbs a step further and plan to cut usage even in nonpeak hours, experts say.

Strictly speaking, to avoid blackouts consumption needs to be cut only at peak times, which in the summer is between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays — when air conditioners are cranked up high. The 11 a.m.-noon partial peak may also pose a blackout threat if people overdo their usage.

Fewer lights are now on in the evening and fireworks displays have been canceled in the Tokyo area amid a more subdued mood and awareness of the need to curb power use.

“Some companies and businesses don’t want people to get a bad impression of them,” said Fusako Baba, an honorary professor of consumer psychology at Asian University. “It is an understandable business psychology.”

Saving energy even during nonpeak hours is helpful because it will encourage people to cut electricity in peak times as well, Baba added.

The government has urged reduced power consumption in nonpeak hours as well.

But some users may be more motivated to conserve to cast the image that they are not wasteful and not because they fear blackouts, said Michihisa Koyama, a researcher at the International Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research in Kyushu University.

Koyama said canceling events or dimming lights at night is unnecessary.

Municipalities in the Tokyo area have canceled fireworks events this summer, including at least nine in July and August, among them the popular Tokyo Bay and Tama River displays.

Chuo Ward said April 5 it will call off the Tokyo Bay event because it uses lots of electricity in lighting at night and public transportation may get swarmed if fears of rolling blackouts recur, it said in a news release.

Tokyu Corp. had adopted energy-saving light emitting diodes in the big screen on the QFront commercial building in Shibuya, Tokyo, before March 11.

The company turned off the lighted scrolling banner ad atop the Qfront big screen, giving up potential advertising revenue, Tokyu Corp. spokesman Masayuki Yanagisawa said.

“We are already using LEDs, so we can’t save electricity by changing regular lights to LED lights. Therefore, we had to dim the lights” to cut energy consumption, Yanagisawa aid.

Koyama also said the beverage industry may have overreacted to public criticism for using too much electricity, including remarks by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who singled out vending machines and pachinko parlors as electricity wasters.

Even before the Fukushima crisis, beverage companies, including Coca-Cola Japan Co., Ito En Ltd., Kirin Beverage Co. and Suntory Holdings Ltd., had shut down the refrigeration functions of all of their vending machines between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. in summer to save energy.

Still, those firms are trying also to curb machine operations during nonpeak hours.

This summer they plan to curb the refrigeration of their vending machines from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., in addition to 1 p.m.-4 p.m. shutdowns across the board.

The soft drinks industry and government want individuals and businesses to cut electricity use in a wider time range than 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. basically because it is better to be safe than sorry.

The beverage companies decided to save energy in response to a request by the Japan Soft Drink Association, which asked businesses to cut electricity consumption by 25 percent, 10 percentage points more than the government’s recommendation, in the service areas of Tepco and Tohoku Electric Power Co. between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. from July to September.

The Natural Resources and Energy Agency recommended electricity users in Tepco’s service area cut electricity consumption between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays by 15 percent from last summer from July 1 to Sept. 22 and in Tohoku Electric’s service area from July 1 to Sept. 9.

“If we ask for a precise cut from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., we may have a blackout shortly before or after those times. Therefore, we set a wider time range,” said Kiyohide Yasuhara of the Electric and Gas Industry Department’s policy planning division.

Even if saving energy at night doesn’t impact the economy, dimmer lights at night may result in more crimes, Koyama said.

He added, though, saving electricity in early evening in March was meaningful because outside of summer, the peak time is typically 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, when people come home and switch on lights and other appliances. That was the feared power shortage time at the onset of the crisis.

Delaying pro baseball’s night games in March was meaningful because they use a lot of electricity, while canceling “hanami” cherry blossom viewing parties the same month was not really a power issue, as nonpartyers would use electricity if they just went home, he said.

The annual peak electricity consumption occurs in the afternoon on hot summer days because that’s when air conditioners at work are in peak use. In Tepco’s service area, the high point over the past 12 years was 64.3 million kw on July 24, 2001, according to the School of Creative Science and Engineering of Waseda University, which cites Tepco press releases.

The peak demand in last summer’s record-breaking heat was 59.99 million kw.

The lower figure compared with 2001 reflects improvements in the energy efficiency of newer air conditioners.