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Sacrifice and luck help Japan survive without nuclear power, Stanford visiting scholar says via Stanford News

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, nuclear-dependent Japan began shutting down its other reactors. Toshiya Okamura, a Tokyo Gas executive and visiting scholar at Stanford University, explains how the country survived the summer, and expresses deep concerns about this winter and his country’s energy future.

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“People did everything they could,” said Okamura. “To minimize air conditioning, they raised thermostats in homes, offices and stores to 83 degrees Fahrenheit, as the government asked. They set every appliance and electronic device to the most energy-efficient settings. They kept the lights off as much as possible. Escalators were shut off.”

It worked. While government forecasters expected voluntary reductions in consumption to shave peak demand by about 6 percent, in fact, residents and businesses cut about 11 percent, according to government analysis.

“There was some pure luck, too,” said Okamura, whose permanent position is running Tokyo Gas’ renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. “Western Japan had very heavy rains in May and June, which gave us extra hydropower all summer. Also, at any given time you expect about 5 percent to 8 percent of your fossil-fired generators to not be working because of some mechanical problem. On the hottest day for Osaka, that region had zero generators off line. And for the country overall this summer, very few generators were out of service.”

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“Thermostats set to 83 degrees? This isn’t energy efficiency. It’s just pushing people to suffer,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned here is that energy efficiency is about reducing waste – that is, producing more and enjoying the same amenities with lower energy inputs.”

“But the government is saying that these voluntary savings will persist. I don’t agree,” Okamura said. In fact, he pointed out, Tokyo-area electricity savings dropped to about 10 percent in the summer of 2012 from 15 percent in the summer of 2011, showing how quickly voluntary programs can lose steam. California’s electricity crisis of 2000-2001 saw a similar pattern for the effectiveness of voluntary appeals.

The government’s assumption that voluntary cutbacks will persist is based on a survey of 20,000 residents and businesses, asking if they suffered from the sacrifices, and if they could continue the same practices next summer.

“This is like some paper written by a high school summer student. I can’t believe the government’s national energy policy is developed partly based on this,” said Okamura.

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“I think METI and the Cabinet miss the point,” said Okamura. “It’s not about the best energy balance or which nuclear plants should be restarted. While many people oppose nuclear power, the industrial and commercial sectors are facing serious rate increases due to more gas- and oil-fired generation. Industry wants cheaper electricity. Some may want green electricity, some want nuclear-free electricity and others want cheap electricity. We need energy choices.”

“Eventually some nuclear reactors must come back,” he said. “But people have become completely afraid. Nobody eats any food produced within 200 miles of Fukushima. Parents in that area, which includes the largest cities, have to bring their children in every year to measure their cumulative exposure. They will never forget this.”

Stanford will continue to play a role in Japan’s energy challenges. Tokyo Gas, a member of the university’s Energy and Environment Affiliates Program, will send another executive to continue Okamura’s research at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center in April.

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