Japan Replaced Half Its Nuclear Power With Energy Efficiency. Could The U.S. Do Something Similar?

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The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan didn’t only shut down the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, it caused Japan to close all 50 of its nuclear plants over safety concerns and to reconsider its entire energy strategy for the rest of the century. Before the disaster Japan got about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and had plans to raise that to about half by 2050. To replace that energy, Japan had to look elsewhere, both domestically and abroad. Japan doesn’t have its own significant fossil fuel reserves, and so it must import oil and gas — an expensive and environmentally unfriendly approach for a country that has prided itself on leading the fight against climate change. To help offset this, Japan also established a lucrative feed-in tariff for solar power that lead to a rapid growth in installations.

But replacing nearly one-third of their energy supply — especially going into peak summer demand — was not a realistic option, and the population braced for rolling blackouts to accompany the crippling impacts of the tsunami and earthquake. The government and the people also turned to another option, energy efficiency and conservation. A campaign called ‘setsuden’ (power saving) was established to generate support. It worked, and by allowing dressed-down outfits and rotating air-conditioning schedules, the country averted blackouts. But many worried that this short-term effort would prove to be just that, and that in the long-term an elevated demand for electricity would return, once again taxing the system.

“To push renewable and safe energy to the national forefront and reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy, it is important to sustain the current public setsuden mood,” Kazuko Sato, of Soft Energy Project, an NGO that lobbies for renewable energy expansion, told the Guardian in 2011. “I am worried that the public support could be temporary.”

However, it turns out these worries were unwarranted — Japan has managed to replace half its missing nuclear power capacity through energy efficiency and conservation measures that endure three years later.

“These temporary measures have proven to have long-term impact,” reports Greentech Media. “They’ve dramatically increased the awareness of energy use and energy efficiency, and large companies are running high-profile efficiency programs:”

“The key lesson from the Japanese experience is that coal plant construction is simply too slow to be relevant in the modern world, where resiliency is highly valued. To cope with rapid loss of generation capacity, Japan needed fast, nimble and modular 21st-century solutions. That means efficiency and clean energy.”

The article states that even with these leaps in efficiency, there is still significant room for improvement in Japan. What about in a country like the U.S., where we haven’t had to overcome anything close to shutting down the nearly 100 nuclear plants that provide around one-fifth of the country’s power?

Two analyses from 2009, one from the National Research Council and the other by McKinsey & Co. found that within about a decade the U.S. could cut total energy use by 20 percent or more. President Obama may have seen these studies, because in 2011 he called for achieving a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency in buildings, which use about 20 percent of all energy in the U.S., by 2020. Obama also wants to double U.S. energy efficiency by 2030.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has followed suit, and in his first speech as Secretary last May he said, “I just don’t see solutions to our biggest energy and environmental problems without a very strong demand-side response, and that’s why it’s logical to focus on energy efficiency.”

Several years ago a team of researchers at Cambridge University estimated that the world could save 73 percent of its energy through efficiency measures. Changes like using thicker building installation, installing triple-paned windows, and lowering washing machine temperatures could help demand-side efficiency efforts supplant the slower pace of supply-side implementation of clean energy sources.

The U.S. residential sector consumes about 37 percent of the total electricity production in the country, at a per-household rate of more than double the U.K. does. Andrew Tarantola at Gizmodo recently published a thorough breakdown of why we’re so much more inefficient than our British counterparts:

It’s not just clothes dryers and A/C units. British appliances are also quickly outpacing their U.S. counterparts in terms of efficiency. In the U.K., chest freezers now consume 66 percent less energy than they did in 1990, upright freezers use 59 percent less, and new freezers use 55 percent less. Similarly, wet appliances like dishwashers and washing machines consume 39 percent and 32 percent less power, respectively, than they did in the 1990s.

U.S. appliances, while certainly more efficient than they were in the 1990s, cannot match these gains. Energy Star certified refrigerators, for example, only have to be 15 percent more efficient than non-qualified models or 20 percent more efficient than models that simply meet the federal minimum energy efficiency standard.

We live in bigger houses, we use more air conditioning and, a surprisingly significant factor — our cable boxes are always on. According to Gizmodo, a cable box and standalone DVR can use as much as 446 kilowatt hours a year, far more than those in the U.K. which go into sleep mode for the two-thirds of the day they’re not being used. However at a certain point the issue is not energy efficient options, but a will to utilize them. Studies have shown that when services get less expensive via gains in efficiency, Americans use more of them, offsetting much of the electricity savings. It took a natural disaster of epic proportions in Japan to change habits. What will it take here?