Energy scarcity and Japan’s response

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

At last year’s Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair, Dave Rollo, an Indiana municipal official, talked about plans to deal with the likely impacts of peak oil on their community. In a sense, the Japanese are faced with that challenge now as fuels for both their transportation system and electrical supplies are dramatically reduced and are likely to remain so for at least the next six months. It differs from peak oil in that oil supplies are available, but the infrastructure to process and deliver it is severely damaged.

Our former student’s latest e-mail expressed her appreciation for our caring for them; knowing that helped to cheer them up. She is anxious regarding what might happen next. She wonders whether nuclear power was the correct choice and what other choices are available to them. She believes they will be living in severe conditions for some time, but thinks they can recover from this tragedy.

Assuming the nuclear reactors can be appropriately cooled, lack of fuel is a major problem throughout the country. Nine refineries were damaged and put out of service, reducing fuel availability by 31 percent. The remaining refineries still in service have increased output, and the country has begun to tap oil held in reserve.

In addition to gasoline and diesel needs for vehicles, kerosene used to heat individual rooms within Japanese homes is scarce, as are food and water. Fortunately, their homes and cars are small, heavy use is made of public transportation, and their military expenditures are limited. Their lifestyles are considerably less energy intensive than those of the United States. They also have a strong tradition of working for the common good, as opposed to the individualistic focus of the U.S.

The disaster confronting them could push them into further reductions in energy consumption, which could serve as a model of comfortable, low-energy lifestyles. While they have had a decent standard of living for years, even with relatively limited personal energy consumption, energy innovations could reduce consumption further.

Many of the most devastated areas of villages and towns are in demographic decline and may be simply abandoned, with the survivors relocated to larger urban areas with essential services. With one-fourth of their population above 64 years of age, building a new energy paradigm would have to be accomplished with a reduced labor force.

The initial focus is controlling nuclear facilities, putting out fires, rescuing the living, searching for the dead and providing shelter, food, clothing and medical care for those needing it. They are also making progress on repairing critical infrastructures such as roads, oil refineries and the electric grid. They now live with controlled blackouts of three to four hours per day, which is likely to continue for some time.

Since in previous years nuclear facilities have been closed for months at a time and electrical generators fueled by oil were brought back into service, dealing with catastrophes is not a new experience. The latest experience could call into question their industrial practice of just-in-time deliveries, as a shortage of parts impacts the global supply chain.

As their expected recovery accelerates, energy innovations could be implemented. While we can benefit from their innovations, we would be far better off planning and implementing our own energy revolution before the next crisis hits us. What are your plans and those of your community for living with the loss of abundant, low-cost energy resources?

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the March 30, April 5, 2011 issue

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