Japan meets Energy and Environment

This is the first post of a series I intend to write on the energy efficiency theme, of which this one is a general introduction, and the following ones will keep going into more specific matters and tips.


Historically, Japanese overpopulation together with its traditional Confucianism principles and lack of basic resources has turned Japan into one of the most, if not the most, efficient countries in the modern world. There are obviously many different ways of measuring macro-efficiency, but I personally tend to prefer economies energy intensity (the GDP/Energy ratio) to showcase it. In the graph below you can see how much energy did each country use to produce a given amount of wealth when compared with Japan during 2009.

Be warned though, that data should be taken with a grain of salt when comparing countries with very different economic structures though. For example, it is obvious that the economies of manufacturing countries will always be more energy intensive than service-oriented ones. That is how countries like the UK, which has pursued an aggressive deindustrialization in favor of a stronger financial sector for decades, find themselves pretty high on the list. However, we shall not forget that when one buys something, one is ultimately responsive for the energy used for its manufacture and shipping, which cannot be reflected by the chart above.

Back to Japan, for sure the formidable economic growth after WWII has brought enough wealth for many individuals to become rather wasteful when looked through the glasses of Japanese traditional values. I also believe both the growth and associated wastefulness are closely related to the extreme post-war conditions across the country. Simply said, when living among Japanese you can truly feel how much effort those that experienced the shortages of old have put to ensure that new generations lacked nothing.

All that said, when considering a global context, Japan as a whole is undoubtedly an extremely efficient country. It is therefore not surprising that the electricity supply problems following March 2011 quake and tsunami brought the energy efficiency debate to the first line, and helped to renew the Japanese efficiency efforts. At the same time, the nuclear energy that was once symbol of the growing nation technological progress is being increasingly seen as representing the excess and wastefulness of wealthy Japan. Indeed, just as Tokyo Governor went as far as considering the quake God’s punishment for the growing egoism (I read greed) in the country, I believe many regard Fukushima NPP1 accident in a similar way.

All in all, be it because of repulsion to wastefulness or because it is the only realistic way Japan can hope to control its emissions and energy dependency while leaving the atom, saving energy has become one of the key traits of post 3-11 Japan. Ironically, Japanese lack a word to strictly refer to it, and that is in my opinion where the energy efficiency challenge starts in this country. Indeed, there are many Japanese language short words for saving resources such as money (節約, setsuyaku), electricity (節電, setsuden), or water (節水, sessui), but not for energy as a whole. To me, that is yet another example of what I call the Japanese microscopic vision, where problems are always analyzed separately and the big picture often ignored. Yet if Japan is to attain environmental and economic objectives I believe it is essential that they concentrate their limited efforts where it matters most, and for that one has always to keep in mind the big picture. That is precisely the aim of this post.

Japan Energy Situation, the Big Picture

To understand what I pompously call “the big picture”, we will first introduce the energy supply trends in modern Japan, then analyze the trends in the different uses of that energy, before getting into detail for the most recent data available (2009).

First of all, here is the evolution of Japanese total primary energy supply (TPES) since 1965 (source MEXT, IEA):

Points to notice:

  • Since the 73 oil crisis, Japan has diversified its energy supply by expanding coal use and progressively adding natural gas and nuclear power. The addition of such sources has supported the continuous economic growth up to the 2008 Lehmann crisis.
  • The strong long-term correlation between GDP and energy supply is pretty much obvious, as are the periods of increased energy efficiency such as the early 00’s or the post 73′ period.
  • In the past decade:
    • Japan reliance on oil has progressively declined, but its reliance on fossil fuels as a whole has remained about 80% of the total supply.
    • The combined supply of waste, biofuel, geothermal, solar and wind has remained about 3% of the total supply, and then dropped down to 2% in 2009 amid the economic crisis.

After the supply, let’s now have a look at how and where is that energy actually used.  Here is the evolution of Japanese total final (energy) consumption (TFC) by activity sector since the 1965 (source MEXT):

As you can see:

  • While the Japanese GDP has increased by 2.5 times between 1973 and 2007, the corresponding energy use has only increased by 1.5 times. One can say that Japanese energy efficiency efforts are really sparked up by the ’73 oil crisis after the rapid post-war industrialization.
  • The industrial sector has remained nearly flat for over 4 decades, highlighting both continuous efficiency progress and expansion of overseas manufacturing. The post Lehmann, expensive-yen-driven,  acceleration of Japanese deindustrialization could help reducing even more that figure in the future, but since production in developing nations is likely to be less efficient, overall Japanese industry activities is likely to become more energy intensive; let’s not forget that part of the equation!
  • Japanese services boom in the late 80’s together with household energy consumption are quickly catching up with industrial use. Meanwhile, the transportation sector has also shown significant growth, and in 2007 represented about 23% of the total, or nearly as much as the whole electricity consumption (see the graph below).

If we now look closer into the most recent data available (2009), we can shed some light into the composition of the otherwise obscure “other” field in the previous graph from MEXT (source: IEA):

We can see that:

  • Residential energy use (excluding transport) accounts for just 15% of the total energy use, of which about half goes into electricity and the other half to direct uses of gas and oil (namely heating and hot water) . The same can be said from services (both commercial and public), which represent a larger 20% of the total. Obviously, once industrial output is restored (which has already happened to some extent) their respective weights would lower.
  • With the sharp post-Lehmann drop of industrial output, the overall energy used in transportation is closing to the top position. At 24% It represents about 3 times the electricity used by households.

And finally, let’s compare both the total energy supplied and the actual energy used, together with the part of it that gets most public attention nowadays: electricity consumption.

Where you can finally notice that:

  • Of all the energy supplied (Total Primary Energy Supply), Japan ends up using about 65% of it (Total Final Consumption). The rest is lost in intermediate processes such as electricity generation.
  • In terms of actual energy consumed (TFC), Japan relies in fossil fuels for about 87% of the total.
  • Electricity generation, which remains the only realistic alternative to energy efficiency in order to reduce fossil fuels reliance, accounts for just about 30 % of the total energy consumed. In fact, about 10% of that figure is lost in transmission or used by electricity producers themselves.

Summing up

Altogether, I believe the graphs above highlight:

  • How closely related are both economic growth and energy supply.
  • Japan extreme (87%) dependency on fossil fuels to support that growth.
  • How the energy efficiency focus should address not only residential and commercial/public services, but also transportation. The latter being right now just as important, and assured at nearly 100% by oil.
  • How electricity weight in the overall picture is rather limited, and in particular that used by households representing only about 6-8% of the total energy used. Often neglected, domestic gas and oil use for heating and hot water purposes are just as important.
  • Why Japan should not be thinking in ways of decreasing electricity supply, but increasing generation as much as possible while relying in both Renewable and Nuclear Energies if it is to address its reliance on (foreign) fossil fuels. In particular, the challenge of road transport electrification should not be neglected, since compleeting it would require nearly doubling electricity supply, which should not be worse than burning oil itself (as it was early this year).

In future posts on this series I will concentrate into more practical knowledge, and energy tips for our daily lives.


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