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LEDs Help in Japan’s Recovery from Post-Fukushima Energy Shortage

It’s been four years since the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima forced the closure of many Japanese reactors, knocking out 30 percent of the country’s power supply. In the aftermath, Japan has strived to reduce energy consumption with a national campaign that includes improved insulation for residences, solar powered vending machines and train stations powered by the braking of their subway cars.

However, the effort to save energy may be best illustrated by the 73 million LED light bulbs sold in Japan since the start of 2012. LED bulbs now represent approximately 30% of all bulbs sold in the country. LEDs consume a fifth of the energy used by standard incandescent lights, making them a key part of the nation’s endeavor to increase the efficiency of their energy use.

After Fukushima, Japan shut down its other nuclear power plants for safety checks, removing approximately 47 gigawatts from the power grid. Since then, the nation’s utility providers have been forced to fire up old power plants that utilize fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. In addition, Japan also plans to install 12 gigawatts of solar panels this year and is already offering subsidies for solar power that are triple the incentives in Germany. This will make up some of the difference, but not all. Reducing energy consumption therefore, has become a valuable ally to the effort.

To that end, the government has set a goal for all new homes and public buildings to be net zero energy by 2030. Essentially they will only use as much energy as they can produce from renewable sources and other generation systems. Presently, 40 percent of Japanese homes lack proper insulation, according to a December task report.

Meanwhile, a system installed in a Tokyo subway station is able to save enough energy to power 60 homes, according to Mitsubishi Electric Corp. The system harvests the energy discarded by braking subway cars. The collected energy is then used for lighting, air conditioning and elevators in the station.

The efforts to conserve are paying off. According to a task force on power demand for the trade ministry, power used by the nation’s nine utilities fell by 10 terawatt-hours in July and August due to conservation measures. Compared to the numbers from pre-Fukushima, overall consumption has fallen in the first eight to nine months by variables ranging from 1 to 8 percent.

“There’s no doubt Japan has some of the most advanced technologies in energy saving,” said Takumi Fujinami, a senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute. “And there is still room for saving energy dramatically.”

Sales for LED light bulbs reached $5.2 billion in 2013 according to a report by the International Energy Agency published in October. The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, estimated in 2011 that replacing all of Japan’s lighting to LEDs would save roughly 9.2 terawatt hours of electricity.

Hiroshi Amano, one of three Japanese born scientists who share the Nobel Peace prize for their work in LED technology, believes that LEDs will have an even bigger impact on Japan’s efforts to conserve. Although LEDs cost $10 a piece in comparison to 70 cents for incandescents, their efficiency “can extend shelf life and reduce the total cost and power use,” Amano told reporters last month. By using more LEDs, Japan could cut annual energy expenses by as much as 1 trillion yen ($8.4 billion) in the next five years.

For now, Japan’s efforts to reduce energy consumption show steady progress. Komatsu Ltd., the second largest producer of construction equipment in the world, is among those companies working to reduce electricity consumption at production sites. In May they opened an assembly plant in the northwestern region of Ishikawa which is a consolidation of two retired plants. The new plant is designed to halve electricity use by incorporating energy storage and LED lighting technologies. “We had been working to cut the power use by half after the Fukushima earthquake and it turned out the efforts also led to better productivity,” said Hiroshi Ishihara, a Komatsu spokesman. Komatsu saw a reduction in total electricity use by 38% in 2013.

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