After the Tohoku earthquake in March 2011, Japan was in a seemingly impossible situation. A tremendous amount of conventional generation capacity, including the entire nuclear fleet, was unavailable, and the country faced the risk of power cuts during summer consumption peaks.

But miraculously, or seemingly so, in just a few short weeks Japan managed to avert the rolling power cuts that many believed inevitable. Even more impressive, the Japanese have turned these emergency measures into lasting solutions.

So how'd they do it without forcing people back to the Stone Age? Japan overcame this daunting task by tapping the cheapest and most widely available source of energy: energy efficiency and conservation.

Much of the electricity savings were initially driven by a popular movement known as "Setsuden" ("saving electricity"). This movement emerged to encourage people and companies to conserve energy and prevent rolling power cuts. Simple measures such as increasing temperatures in homes and offices, "thinning" lighting by removing some of the bulbs and tubes, shutting down big screens and cutting exterior lighting enabled Japan to dramatically reduce power demand almost overnight (albeit at the cost of a small amount of personal comfort).

In addition to these measures, the dress code in offices was eased to reduce the need for AC, while commercial facilities were audited to identify potential savings.

These temporary measures have proven to have long-term impact. They've dramatically increased the awareness of energy use and energy efficiency, and large companies are running high-profile efficiency programs. Consequently, power consumption never rebounded with GDP growth because energy-conscious practices became ingrained. More importantly, there is huge potential for technical measures to reduce energy use even further.

More surprising is how far off pundits were about the impact. Some made dire predictions about the need to replace the nuclear fleet with "cheap coal" (a myth we debunked here). A combination of commonsense energy savings measures that began as temporary behavioral changes have led to permanent efficiency gains. In the process, the Japanese people, and its business community, proved the punditry wrong. 

The key lesson from the Japanese experience is that coal plant construction is simply too slow to be relevant in the modern world, where resiliency is highly valued. To cope with rapid loss of generation capacity, Japan needed fast, nimble and modular 21st-century solutions. That means efficiency and clean energy. Despite major hurdles to deploying these solutions -- mostly due to a complete absence of renewable energy policies prior to Fukushima -- solar power surged in 2013, blowing away earlier predictions.

In contrast, coal power projects proposed in the wake of Fukushima are still sitting on the drawing board. By the time these plants are on-line, the output could be rendered obsolete due to the rapidly dropping price of renewable energy. Worse, these investments lock Japan into a volatile international coal market. Japan could learn from India's recent imported coal debacle -- the disastrous Tata Mundra project -- to understand what that market can do to energy security.

Energy security is important. But aligning energy investments with the need to address climate is an even more pressing concern. Replacing half of the nuclear fleet with efficiency and the other half with fossils (mostly gas) is not enough for an advanced country like Japan.

Global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak quickly, and Japan must begin reducing its emissions. The easiest and most important step it can take is giving up on the premise that new coal plants are needed. 


Lauri Myllyvirta is an international campaigner with Greenpeace. Justin Guay is director of the Sierra Club's international coal program.