JAPAN can change. When its people recognise a challenge and agree on a solution, they often act quickly and in unison. After the earthquake and tsunami of March 11th, doubts about the safety of Japan’s nuclear industry were rife. Most reactors were shut down and have not been restarted. Since the country depends on nuclear power for 29% of its electricity, the nuclear freeze threatened to cast Japan into darkness.
The nation responded as one, dimming lights and cranking down the air-conditioning despite the humidity. Salarymen shed their jackets and ties; some even worked from home to save fuel. Factories moved shifts to nights and weekends, when demand for power is slacker. News broadcasts gave warning when the grid was nearing overload and urged people to turn off their gizmos. Peak electricity usage fell by nearly a fifth in the Tokyo region, compared with last year. Amazingly, Japan made it through the summer without blackouts.
Alas, when a crisis is not imminent, Japan is still slow to change. Japan needs a smarter grid, with electricity prices that vary according to demand. Power should cost more when demand is high and less when it is low, giving people an incentive to run the washing machine in the middle of the night. It should also be simple for new producers of electricity—from clever start-ups to big industrial firms—to sell power back to the grid. Unfortunately, power generation and transmission in Japan is carved up into ten regional quasi-monopolies, which stifle such innovations.
These monopolies also prevent Japan from seriously pursuing alternative sources of electricity. Despite the nation’s technical prowess, wind power is underdeveloped and little effort has been made to exploit Japan’s vast geothermal potential. The monopolies’ habit of hushing up safety problems erodes public trust in nuclear power, which for all its troubles must surely be part of the future energy mix.
Two lessons: abrupt and disastrous events get full attention and people respond to them in unison, but not graduate, slow moving and less dramatic events; Institutional changes (like changing the regional monopolies) can be more important and last longer than unified human movement.