By Martin Fackler
In many countries, higher oil prices have hurt pocketbooks and led to worries about economic slowdowns. But in Japan, Kiminobu Kimura, an architect, says he has not felt the pinch. In fact, his monthly energy bill is lower than a year ago.
A reason is his new home fuel cell, a machine as large and quiet as a filing cabinet that sits in front of his house and turns hydrogen into electricity and cold water into hot - at a small fraction of regular utility costs. But even with the device, which is available for now only in Japan, Kimura has not let up on the other shortcuts that have left him unscathed by rising energy costs.
Energy-efficient appliances abound in the many corners of his cramped home. There is the refrigerator that beeps when left open and the dishwasher that is compact enough to sit on the kitchen counter.
In some homes, there are room heaters with a sensor directing heat toward only humans, or "energy navigators" that track households' energy use.
Kimura says there are also the little things that his family of four does to squeeze fuel bills, like reusing warm bath water to wash laundry and bicycling to buy groceries.
Hitoshi Ikuma, a specialist in energy issues at the Japan Research Institute, said: "It's not just technology; it's a whole mind-set. Energy conservation is almost an obsession here among government, companies, regular citizens, everyone."
Japan is the world's most energy-efficient developed country, according to most specialists, who say it is much better prepared than most to prosper in an era of higher global energy prices.
And if there is any lesson that Japan can offer to others, they say, it is that there is no single fix-all solution to living with oil above $50 a barrel
Rather, as Kimura shows, it is a combination of many things, from the most advanced technologies to the simplest frugality in everyday life - and an obsession with energy saving that keeps his family huddled in a single heated room during winter.
Japan's population and economy are each about 40 percent as large as that of the United States, yet in 2004 it consumed less than a quarter as much energy as America did, according to the International Energy Agency, which is based in Paris.
On a per-capita basis, that means Japan consumed the energy equivalent of 2.8 million tons of oil per person in 2004, in contrast to 5.4 million tons per American. Germany, another energy- conscious country, used 3.2 million tons per person. On other measures, like household electricity use, Japan is also much lower.
Japan's obsession with conservation stems from an acute sense of insecurity in a resource-poor nation that imports most its energy from the Middle East, the dangers of which were clearly shown by the 1970s energy shocks.
The guiding hand of government has also played a role, forcing households and companies to conserve by raising the cost of gasoline and electricity far above global levels. Taxes and price controls make a gallon of gasoline in Japan currently cost about $5.20, twice America's more market-based prices.
The government in turn has used these tax revenues to help Japan seize the lead in renewable energies like solar power, and, more recently, home fuel cells. One way has been a subsidy of about $51,000 per home fuel cell. This allowed Kimura to buy his cell last year for about $9,000, far below production cost. His cell, which generates 1 kilowatt per hour, provides just under half of his household's electricity, and has cut his electricity bill by the same amount, he said.
The device converts natural gas into hydrogen, which the fuel cell then uses to generate electricity. Heat released by the process is used to warm water.
The first two fuel cells were installed in the prime minister's residence in April 2005. Since then, 1,300 have been sold, according to the Trade and Industry Ministry. The ministry forecasts that as sales pick up, production cost will fall to about $5,000 by decade's end
Japan's higher energy prices have created strong domestic demand for energy-saving products of all sorts, spurring the invention and development of things like low-energy washing machines and televisions and high-mileage cars and hybrid vehicles. Japanese factories have learned how to cut their energy use to become among the most efficient in the world.
"Japan has taught itself how to survive with energy prices that are twice as high as everywhere else," said Kouichi Iwama, an economics professor at Wako University who advises the Japanese Parliament on energy policy.
The government has tried to foster a culture of conservation with efforts like this winter's Warm Biz campaign, a call to business people to don sweaters and long johns under their gray suits in order to lower office thermostats. It has also encouraged development of energy-saving appliances with its Top Runner program, which has set goals for reducing energy use and rates products according to their efficiency.
The Trade and Industry Ministry says consumers heed the ratings, pushing manufacturers to raise energy efficiency. The average air- conditioner now uses two-thirds less electricity than in 1997, and the average freezer 23 percent less, the ministry said.
The savings add up. The average household here used 4,177 kilowatt hours of electricity in 2001, the most recent figure, according to the Jyukankyo Research Institute. In the same year, the average American household consumed more than twice that, or 10,655 kilowatt hours, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
(c) 2007 International Herald Tribune. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.
Publication date: 2007-01-08