“This is a demand warning,” the announcer says, reading from a script. “We ask for your cooperation.”
But many Japanese companies are tired of cooperating. Asked by the government to use less electricity, companies say the cutbacks curb their productivity, thin their profits and could eventually stall the world’s third-largest economy.
The energy-saving push was seen on a smaller scale last year after an earthquake and tsunami triggered a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Japan’s east coast and caused shutdowns at several others, and Japanese companies obliged without complaint. Electricity conservation, or “setsuden,” was a way to help the post-disaster cause.
But this year, Japanese business leaders say, the energy-saving feels more like a major drain than a goodwill duty. Unlike last summer, when severe shortages were confined to the northeast, even regions far removed from the Fukushima plant now face shortages, with all but two of Japan’s 50 viable reactors shuttered amid public opposition. Utility companies are importing record levels of fossil fuels, but even that hasn’t covered the gap. That leaves companies — many that were already energy-efficient — straining for unorthodox ways to meet peak-hour summer reduction targets.
Electronics giant Panasonic told employees at its Osaka headquarters to take a nine-day paid vacation in late July. Manufacturer Nippon Tungsten, in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, bumped work shifts to the weekend to avoid peak hours and, to use less air conditioning, started spraying factory rooftops with cold water.
Breadmaker Nichiryo, based in Hokkaido, leased a 200 kilovolt-ampere diesel generator, which sits like a horse trailer outside its main factory and supplies electricity at four times the cost of the regional utility company.
“It makes no sense financially to use the generator,” said Hidetaka Matsuda, a Nichiryo manager in charge of energy use. “We’re doing it just to achieve the reduction target.”
Matsuda described the energy restrictions as “severe.” A Panasonic spokeswoman said they’ve had a “major impact” on business. At the Kawai Tekkou Iron Works plant in Hokkaido, some employees second-guess the need for conservation and point fingers at the utility company, which they feel should provide the necessary amount.
“Our work shouldn’t suffer,” said Hiroki Kawai, an employee who is a third-generation member of the family business. Kawai said he was describing others’ complaints, not his own.
The energy debate
The economy-sapping energy shortages hint at the stakes of the fierce debate over Japan’s energy future. At the root is whether Japan, in the wake of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant, should renounce nuclear power to build a less disaster-prone country or re-embrace it to fuel a more economically viable one.