June 09, 2005
Energy Conservation All The Rage In Japan

The Japanese are big on energy conservation.

Even though Japan is already among the most frugal countries in the world, the government recently introduced a national campaign, urging the Japanese to replace their older appliances and buy hybrid vehicles, all part of a patriotic effort to save energy and fight global warming. And big companies are jumping on the bandwagon, counting on the moves to increase sales of their latest models.

On the Matsushita appliance showroom floor these days, the numbers scream not the low, low yen prices, but the low, low kilowatt-hours.

A vacuum-insulated refrigerator, which comes with a buzzer if the door stays open more than 30 seconds, boasts that it will use 160 kilowatt-hours a year, one-eighth of that needed by standard models a decade ago. An air-conditioner with a robotic dust filter cleaner proclaims it uses 884 kilowatt-hours, less than half of what decade-old ones consumed.

Japan far produces more economic output per unit of energy than other industrialized countries.

This dependence on imports has prodded the nation into tremendous achievements in improved efficiency. France and Germany, where government crusades against global warming have become increasingly loud, expend almost 50 percent more energy to produce the equivalent of $1 in economic activity. Britain's energy use, on the same measure, is nearly double; the United States nearly triple; and China almost eight times as much.

From 1973 to today, Japan's industrial sector nearly tripled its output, but kept its energy consumption roughly flat. To produce the same industrial output as Japan, China consumes 11.5 times the energy.

But Japan's residential and home sectors have witnessed doublings of energy use over the same period. Rising affluence has allowed people to buy bigger cars, drive more miles, build bigger houses, and use more heating and air conditioning. Rising efficiency in appliances and cars have failed to prevent this trend.

Part of the differences in energy use between countries is a reflection of differences in residential home sizes. Large homes consume more energy for heating and cooling than small homes. Another part of the difference stems for the average distance between homes and work. Another part stems from average vehicle fuel efficiency. I think the odds of getting people in the United States to drive smaller calls and live in smaller homes closer to their jobs are pretty slim.

How much of Japan's increased energy efficiency could be copied by the United States without major changes in American lifestyles? That answer depends on answers to many subquestions. For example, do the Japanese insulate their residences better than Americans? If so, by how much? Also, how far from ideal most cost effective insulation is the average American house or apartment building?

Thanks to Ergosphere's E-P for the NY Times article tip.

The political opportunity exists for selling energy conservation policies to the American people. An overwhelming majority of the American people want to find ways to reduce foreign oil use.

New Haven, Conn. - A new Yale University research survey of 1,000 adults nationwide reveals that while Americans are deeply divided on many issues, they overwhelmingly believe that the United States is too dependent on imported oil.

The survey shows a vast majority of the public also wants to see government action to develop new "clean" energy sources, including solar and wind power as well as hydrogen cars.

92% of Americans say that they are worried about dependence on foreign oil

93% of Americans want government to develop new energy technologies and require auto industry to make cars and trucks that get better gas mileage

The results underscore Americans' deep concerns about the country's current energy policies, particularly the nation's dependence on imported oil. Fully 92 percent say this dependence is a serious problem, while 68 percent say it is a "very serious" problem.

But keep in mind that most people do not want to be inconvenienced by policies designed to reduce oil dependence.

Energy policy reminds me of immigration policy as a subject area where the elites are lagging behind and ignoring the desires of the masses. I think most people understand tha the world's increasing dependence on a country which won't allow women to drive and whose majority admires Osama Bin Laden is a bad thing. That country shows few signs of reforming.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 June 09 09:36 PM  Energy Policy

remo williams said at June 10, 2005 1:34 AM:

"For example, do the Japanese insulate their residences better than Americans?"

No, not even close, but they have started to insulate new homes better.

The article didnt mention something peculiar to Japan. Despite a recent campaign to shed neckties in the hot summer and bearing hotter offices, the government still hasnt passed daylight savings time which would cut energy costs. There is a bill to experiment with DST from 2007 to 2010, although I dont think it passed yet.

Engineer-Poet said at June 10, 2005 8:53 AM:

Energy-efficiency measures have been halted by politicians; IIRC a bill to hike efficiency standards for buildings was vetoed by Michigan's previous (Republican) governor, John Engler.  He claims to have done this for the building lobby, though I wonder why they'd make any less money marking up insulation and high-R windows than lumber.  As a consequence, Michigan has had a huge number of inefficient homes added to its housing stock; these houses would have been cheap to build to high standards but will be very expensive to retrofit and will be a liability for decades.

Absent regulatory dictates, the standards for apartment buildings depend on who pays the utilities.  When the tenant pays, it's to the landlord's interest to minimize capital costs regardless of the impact on energy bills; one consequence is buildings with aluminum-frame windows and electric resistance heat... in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania (personal experience for all three).  I've also seen aluminum-frame single-pane doorwalls in a Michigan apartment building.

Things will change when people decide to accept inconveniences of their own choosing in preference to shortages, price spikes and unemployment as industries shut down because they cannot pay for the energy they need and remain competitive.  When people accept the need to alter their practices, we'll get somewhere; in the mean time we are treading water.

(How much water?  I found I've been talking about plug-in hybrids for thirteen years, and Detroit hasn't shipped one yet.  Neither has the most forward-looking company in the US car market, Toyota.)

Lyle said at June 10, 2005 9:02 AM:
Another part of the difference stems for the average distance between homes and work. Another part stems from average vehicle fuel efficiency. I think the odds of getting people in the United States to drive smaller calls and live in smaller homes closer to their jobs are pretty slim.

Actually, the average Japanese commute time for metropolitan areas is much longer than it is the US. This doesn't invalidate your point since the Japanese have amazingly high rates of public transport usage. And honestly, despite Bogota's recent success in dropping their average commute by 21 minutes, the odds of any a major metropolitan area in the US taking similar measures is nil.

The fact is that poor zoning has led to suburban sprawl in the US and having 30 million people has led to it in Tokyo. Looking at Fort Worth and Dallas can show the difference good zoning compared to bad zoning can do for a metropolitan area.

As the US finally realizes this and urban planners stop blocking off huge areas as residential, commercial, and industrial only with the assumption that workers will commute (a new zoning system which developed with the advent of the car), the merging of residential and non-hazardous commercial zoning will once again allow people to live close to work. Expect to see more new communities developed in the Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) style as the current generation of urban planners make it out into the workforce.

Of course, with institutional government jobs and the nature of urban development, the progress in this area will take many many years.

Has anyone else seen more recent information about Bogotá's transport system and if it has lived up to its hype.

gmoke said at June 10, 2005 6:03 PM:

I've been following this issue for about 30 years now and in all that time the vast majority of people polled in the US support conservation, efficiency, and renewables by the level of about 70% consistently, year after year, decade after decade. The government and business community have never been particularly interested in mobilizing that 70% agreement. The last person to attempt it was Jimmy Carter and his call for "the moral equivalent of war" (sounds a little different in this new century don't it?) in a cardigan was played as a joke by most of the political establishment and almost all of the media.

Please remember, every time that somebody green suggests that we can produce more with less energy the US Chamber of Commerce squeals like a stuck pig and tells everybody who will listen that those naive eco-freaks will destroy the economy. Next time it happens, and it will happen, please be so good as to remind them to tell it to the Japanese.

Randall Parker said at June 10, 2005 6:27 PM:


Yes, I'd certainly like to see more mixed building types rather than large areas of "monoculture".

Also, especially for rental units high standards for insulation are needed.

Lei said at June 11, 2005 4:07 AM:

I lived in Japan from 1999-2004. Our relatively large apartment was in a building less than 10 years old and the insulation was absolute crap. We had three air conditioning/heating units in the living room alone of which two needed to be on in order to heat the room to even close to livable temps in the winter (my nose barely thawed). Their saving-the-environment attempts were inane and contradictory. We'd be asked to sort our garbage ad infinitum before they'd "accept" it (a neighborhood monitor would return your garbage to you if you'd mixed in noncombustibles with combustibles) but all garbage was still packaged in plastic bags, which had to be government issued. Anything you buy there still comes in multiple layers of packaging. They are still a long long way from being truly energy efficient.

Eric Pobirs said at June 11, 2005 3:00 PM:

The biggest mistake energy conservation campaigners make is stressing the need for citizens to accept inconvenience for the common good. This is a proven loser of a sales strategy. Only a small segment of the market responds well to pleas for virtue as opposed to offering a demonstrably better product. Very low emissiion and zero emission vehicles have been available for a long time but often involved both a premium and much inconvenience. The Prius managed to become a status symbol by allowing consumers to indulge in virtue by just spending a bit more in what was otherwise an ordinary car. As the cost premium is reduced more consumers will buy the hybrids solely for the advantage in mileage and decreasingly for the appeal to virtue. It will simply be a product that became the better choice when it reached maturity. That same level of maturity is needed for an array of other products that reduce energy consumption before they're widely adopted. Virtue alone isn't a mass market product.

Engineer-Poet said at June 12, 2005 9:57 AM:

So are you saying that ECC's should try to make large shifts in patterns and sources of energy use without having citizens accept any change (meaning inconvenience) and thus hog-tie themselves before they've begun, or sell the citizens on the result without revealing their contribution to it and thus invite a backlash when the truth comes out?

TANSTAAFL.  To make things happen, people gotta do things.  Doing things takes work and costs money.  We may save money overall if we do it right, but nothing changes that truth.

Randall Parker said at June 12, 2005 11:06 AM:


To the extent that the citizens are inconvenienced or forced to pay a price for energy conservation it has to be done in a way that causes most of them to not notice it.

For example, that is the advantage of regulations on building construction. Most people don't know what is behind the walls of their houses or what parts of housing costs are due to insulation.

Look at the Medicare drug benefit. It costs a lot of money. But most people don't realize they are paying more for it because the ways they will pay are not immediately apparent.

This is why I favor increased government funding of energy research as well. It will improve our energy situation without most people being aware of how much they are paying for it.

Does this mean I have a dim view of most voters? Yeppers!

Engineer-Poet said at June 13, 2005 12:36 AM:

The problem with "invisible" measures is that it leads to things like CAFE standards which create perverse incentives (driving is cheaper so more miles are driven, fuel consumption still increases).

However you slice it, we're looking at much higher dollar costs for oil and natural gas.  This might be enough to get people to think seriously about alternatives rather than mere austerity.

Blues said at June 14, 2005 8:07 AM:

I can't speak for Japanese lifestyles in the last 5 years, but I did live in Japan from 1991-1999. The reason why Japanese homes are energy efficient (per capita) is because they don't use as much energy, and instead take a hit on quality of life compared to, say, American households. Your average Japanese home or apartment is small, with poor insulation, and no central heating/air. Many still use gas burners to heat their rooms in winter. I agree that Japanese industry is quite efficient, and the modern appliances that are produced are indeed efficient. But much of the efficiency still comes at the expense of lower quality of life for end-consumers. This makes any apples to apples comparison between countries difficult - you need to control for all the significant variables, and societal choices about quality of life (not to mention modes of tranportation) are certainly part of the energy efficiency equation.

Engineer-Poet said at June 14, 2005 11:27 PM:

Yet it does not appear overly difficult to make dwellings highly energy-efficient; I recall reading about homes which were so well insulated that they needed no heat beyond the emissions of their occupants and appliances... in Canada... ten or more years ago!

There is no longer any excuse for inefficient construction; we're just too resistant to change to bring practice into line with the state of the art.

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