Is Japan Experiencing Peak Oil First?

There's a very good piece in the Guardian about the ways that Eastern Japan's energy crisis is a model for experiences we might have in the future:

For large parts of eastern Japan that were not directly hit by the tsunami on 11 March 2011, including the nation's capital, the current state of affairs feels very much like a dry-run for peak oil. This is not to belittle the tragic loss of life and the dire situation facing many survivors left without homes and livelihoods. Rather, the aim here is to reflect upon the post-disaster events and compare them with those normally associated with the worst-case scenarios for peak oil.

The earthquake and tsunami affected six of the 28 oil refineries in Japan and immediately petrol rationing was introduced with a maximum of 20 litres per car (in some instances as low as 5 litres). On 14 March, the government allowed the oil industry to release 3 days' worth of oil from stockpiles and on 22 March an additional 22 days' worth of oil was released.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which serves a population of 44.5 million, lost one quarter of its supply capacity as a result of the quake, through the closedown of its two Fukushima nuclear power plants (Dai-ichi and Dai-ni), as well as eight fossil fuel based thermal power stations. Subsequently, from 14 March 2011 onwards, TEPCO was forced to implement a series of scheduled outages across the Kanto region (the prefectures of Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba, and Kanagawa).

While the thermal power stations may restart operations soon, the overall shortfall will become even more difficult to manage over the summer period when air conditioning is utilized. The reality is that these power cuts could continue for years, especially since the one of the two Fukushima nuclear plants has effectively become a pile of radioactive scrap.

Related to this, when the Tokyo Metropolitican Government began to announce levels of radioactive contamination of drinking water above permissible levels, this was immediately followed by the rapid sell-out of bottled water, even after the levels dropped again. When bottled water is on sale in local convenience stores after some restocking took place, each customer is only allowed to purchase one 2 litre bottle.

Immediately after the quake, supermarkets outside the disaster area in Tokyo and other major cities began to sell out of foodstuffs, including various instant meals. The electrical appliance stores sold out of batteries, flashlights and portable radios.

Do read the whole thing, and think about what lessons this can teach us about preparations for tougher times. The fact is, none of us is invulnerable to sudden disasters that undermine what we had previously believed were stable systems - this is being very clearly indicated in Japan.

I have more to say about this article, and no time to say it today, but I did want everyone to take a look - very important. What is happening in Japan should point up to all of us that these things can ahppen everywhere - and it is always better to be prepared.


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Been thinking, Sharon... could Japan turn out to be the first nation actually facing the future that's coming? You really can't have a bigger wake up call for these small islands short of a complete meltdown (which, who knows...).

And the Japanese are no dummies. This could be the moment when they realize that the modern load of crap they were pushed into has been vastly oversold, and tossing their own culture overboard for it has been an interesting experiment whose time has run out.

It's a good read. Thanks for the heads up!

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

While Japan is pretty big, I think it still qualifies as an "island" nation. And I did comment about this in 2008:

Similar things are going on for other islands. I keep up with Hawaii, having lived there for a few years. There's really no question that peak oil has hit them; has caused changes all over, and will cause more. Power blackouts in Hawaii - happen every week. Partly a matter of limited generating capacity; also a matter of the grid- they don't have one; each island stands alone, and no, you can't tap into wind power from Wyoming there.

The trick would be to get the islands to see this as positive; and get them to take the lead; since they have no choice anyway. Japan could lead. I hope they do.

There are risks associated with being industrialized, and there are risks associated with not being industrialized.

Japan and Pakistan have about the same population, but Japan ranks 4 in GDP, Pakistan 47. When was the last time you imported something from Pakistan (or Bangladesh, which has about the same population)?

Would the Japanese have been better off, if they were less power intensive over the last 50 years, and the earthquake/tsunami had still hit?

I don't know...I do know it is easy to fixate on a catastrophe. (Not to dilute the messsage the people should be prepared for their own. Which they should. And catastrophes will infrequently happen with 100% certainty over time).

In Japan there is the additional complication that eastern Japan (roughly speaking, the area from Yokohama northward) runs their grid at 50 Hz while western Japan uses 60 Hz. There is some capacity to convert between the two frequencies, but I would expect those converters to be at or near capacity after the disaster. So the ability of Tokyo to import electricity from parts of Japan not strongly affected by the earthquake and tsunami is limited. That definitely means that there will be problems in summer when the air conditioners are turned on.

@Greenpa: You don't have to be on an island to have reliability problems with the grid (though they are definitely more acute). Where I live the power grid is exposed to the weather, and despite two incidents of widespread power outages in a 15 month period (December 2008 ice storm and February 2010 gale), there seems to be no evidence that local providers are hardening the grid. Just last month strong winds (and nothing more than that; it was otherwise a nice day weather-wise) took out power in my neighborhood for a few hours. And this was without generation issues--I expect the grid to get more fragile as those start to come into play.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

Healthphysicist, you focus on "we'd be even worse off without advanced technolgy" but ignore (that I've seen, at least) the elephant/s in the room: large and still growing human population and consumption. And comparing extreme differences is like a straw man, don't you think a society can be more efficient and sparing, and still be "advanced"? We're going to have to be, that's for sure. Note also, that if of the nations of Pakistan's type were to try and modernize, the increase in demand for oil etc. would be ruinous.

I think you have noted politicization of policy which makes it hard to transition based on real science, when the holders of power (pun intended I suppose) control things to their benefit.

I'm hoping they remodel using renewables. They have the chance to do this large scale and certainly little choice now that nuclear will be off the table.

It will either be a harsh lesson in reality for the technocopians or, more likely, a passable solution with a lot less adjustment than people realise.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

I thought the Arab Oil Embargo was a pretty good Peak Oil simulation, but it seems to have been long forgotten.

The proof of the level of Peak Oil awareness in Japan will be seen by how they rebuild and utilize generic railway in the rebuild proceedings. US rescue airlift cannot be continued ad infinitum.

Haiti is a textbook no railway component horrendous disaster case! Haiti should have inclusion of the Port Au Prince rail spur expansion in the international efforts ongoing. US Railcar ferry to Haiti invites Caribbean rail network expansion to include Dominican Republic and, Cuba rail network (via ferry link). Renewables (solar & wind) powering railway is suistainable economics at its best! See Swan's "Electric Water" (New Society Press, 2007) for insights.

By tahoevalleylines (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink


I think there is so much that is different between Japan and Pakistan, from the wealth of food and seafaring resources of Japan, to the industrious, hard-working, social structure that is Japan, I just can't see your comparison as valid in any way.

Pakistan has a lot of violence and ethic troubles, if I recall correctly, that Japan doesn't really have, to name another example.

A better comparison, I think, would be a large, Amish country (if one existed) compared to Japan. At least that way, we'd be comparing peoples of a similar self-discipline and work ethic.

As it is, you kind of use Pakistan to smear a low energy, low impact, resilient lifestyle, when in reality, that country has many, many problems that, in fact, probably kept it from industrializing to begin with.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

I meant to say "Pakistan has a lot of violence and ethnic troubles, if I recall correctly, that Japan doesn't really have, to name another example."

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

Stephen B. -

I actually mentioned Bangladesh as well.

Here are some more countries with populations similar to Japan:

1. Nigeria
2. Vietnam
3. Phillipines

Now, I've given you 5 countries that are similar in population, but have nowhere near the GDP. Why?

Because they don't produce the energy to create the infrastructure to be a powerful economic force.

I'm not smearing anyone...I'm just pointing out the differences.

It may be their self discipline and work ethic which led the Japanese to overcome their sensitivity to tsunamis (that's a Japanese word) and radiation exposure (courtesy of the U.S.) and move forward with industrialization.

Are they better off today compared to where they would otherwise be if they hadn't industrialized?

I don't know....I'm just saying don't rush to erroneous conclusions.

I do hope that the reconstruction efforts in Japan will use at least *some* isolation in the new buildings they built. I am always amazed that my office in Japan is kept at 24-26 degrees C during the winter, and has single-pane windows only. What a waste of energy!



I think you have it backward. It's not so much that Japan was able to industrialize because Japan produces more energy than those countries that you mentioned. It's that industrialization both created demands for energy and allowed Japan to have infrastructure and financial means to distribute and consume energy.

It's certainly nice to be able to consume energy if you can afford it. As a Japanese myself, it was better off with the comfort that the industrialization offered. But the question now is whether Japan can afford it.

Japan lost a big chunk of capacity to generate electricity. TEPCO is a mess from financial as well as moral points of view. It may take a while before they can recover the capacity whether by nuclear power, fossil fuels, or renewable. I don't know exactly how (and I'm saying from the comfort of currently living abroad), but it seems that Japan has to learn to live with less energy. I hope that this will lead to improved energy efficiency (as well as advancements in renewable technologies).

Still, that doesn't mean that we are going back to energy consumption level comparable to Bangladesh and Pakistan. I don't think it is helpful to talk about extremes.

Health Physicist, I take your point, but I think it is a bit of a strawman - there was enormous subsidized investment in infrastructure building in Japan in ways that there simply hasn't been in Pakistan. Moreover, the question is not just whether industrialization has been good for any given place, but whether industrialization is going to be good for the whole world in the longer term. Unless you deny that we're radically consuming in ways that make our future ability to support ourselves problematic, you have to ask the question - is it better for a few generations to have lived well and the rest to inherit a much less inhabitable planet because of it?


Richard Eis - I agree. That was my point...they've been moving towards renewables, but renewables don't provide the energy density needed to support a thriving economy. Taking nuclear off the table will be a tough choice.

Sharon - first, great blog.

Second, I am not making any statement as to whether industrialization is good or bad. Only that to focus on the bad, without consideration of the good, is errant.

Where did the "enormous subsidized investment" come from?

I'm just reminding everyone of the obvious....economic power comes from energy power. The top GDP countries are energy intensive. Those countries have derived a lot of benefit from that. It's easy to make enormous subsidized investments when that is the path being undertaken. There will be return on those investments.

Some have accused me of making a comparison of extremes...I'm not. The few countries I haven't mentioned, that compare with Japan in terms of population, also compare with Japan in terms of energy production and GDP (Germany is a good example). Obviously. What sense does it make to compare two industrialized countries, when I'm trying to contrast an industrialized country with unindustrialized ones?

HI - there is no frontwards or backwards. Industrialization and energy production go hand in hand. If you industrialize, you need terrestial energy sources, whether you have them locally available or import them. Japan imports most of theirs (uranium and fossil fuels). Presumably, they did this willingly. The whole point is to use the energy with net economic benefit ("to afford it").

At the end of the day it is all about risk shifting....shifting what we perceive as obvious risks (hardship from weather, sickness, hard labor, etc.) to more diffuse risks (global warming, global radioactive contamination, global resource depletion, etc.). Today, citizens of industrialized countries live longer and healthier as a result. But they've shifted the risk to others (either in different locations and/or later in time).

But eventually the diffuse risks concentrate. And then we either have to further diffuse those risks (but that diffusion will itself eventually concentrate later in time and location), or choose to accept more of the obvious risks in the current time.

The "ground state" of NOT diffusing risks is to just use solar energy directly. We absorb all the risks of nature in real time, because we are only using the sun's energy. Once we start using terrestial energy sources, we start risk shifting.

In the grand scheme, the Universe loves entropy (disorder). Humans hate entropy, but it takes a lot of CONTINUOUS energy to fight it decade after decade. Ultimately, the Universe will win.

By healthphysicist (not verified) on 05 Apr 2011 #permalink

Healthphysicist, why do you say the universe loves entropy? It loves order too... if you look at a thriving forest, a coral reef, a finch, a frog, a human being... amazing order, no?

Modernity seems to run according to a myth... nature is chaos, and we must impose order.

Bullfrog, I say... :-)

Vera -

The Universe was at its lowest entropy just before the Big Bang. It has been increasing ever since. That's why I say the Universe loves entropy. Life exists to help facilitate entropy. Life facilitates the degradation of the Sun's energy more so, than if the energy would simply reradiated into space.

Humans (and other life) could maximize the experience of life if there was perfect order...there would be zero risk, because the order would be perfect and understandable (boring!)!

So, that's why I say humans hate entropy.

But entropy is increasing matter how much we hate it or how much energy we consume.

You could equally say, the universe loves order. You could say it loves life... Maybe the cycles of order and decay we see here on earth reflect the universe at large... maybe many universes cycle in and out of entropy...

Well, you can say whatever you want to say.

But the 2nd Law Of Thermodynamics, which has been consistently supported with evidence, says that disorder is always increasing. You seem to be totally ignorant of this basic physics parameter and you seem to think I'm just phrasing things based on some subjective description I'm articulating. I'm not. Entropy is increasing, just like gravity is an attractive force between masses.

The issue of many universes is a distraction. We live in this universe, and in this universe entropy is increasing.

@Healthphysicist ...

Agreed on energy density. That said, nuclear still doesn't touch conventional oil or coal on EROEI, either, at around 6-1. Now, future, truly Gen IV plants may improve that. But, even expanding nuclear on top of renewables isn't of itself the answer to climate change. Conservation and efficiency need ever more promotion. But, there's big biz in nuke power and renewables, just like fossil fuels; other than Owens-Corning making more insulation, efficiency doesn't have a capitalist constituency; conservation certainly doesn't.

On the imports from Pakistan, though? Take a look at the tag on your shirt. If not there, it might be from Indonesia or Vietnam. (And, ditto for the average shirt the average Japanese wears.)

I like the "ultimately the Universe will win."

Per climate change and the increasingly untenable U.S. Southwest, I'm reminded of Ed Abbey's "The desert always wins."

But entropy is increasing nonetheless.

Considering the universe as a whole, yes. But the increase in entropy of that massive fusion reactor in the sky can offset a lot of local entropy decrease here on Earth, as handily illustrated by the existence of life. Sure, it'll all get wiped away in a few billion years, but there's a lot we can do before then.

Sometimes you need to stop looking at the big picture and go weed the garden.

Thank you, Dunc. But healthphyz is perhaps too busy to be condescending to pay attention.

Life exists to help facilitate entropy.

Physicists remain a close second to theologians in batshit crazy. (at least some of em!)

The proof of the level of Peak Oil awareness in Japan will be seen by how they rebuild and utilize generic railway in the rebuild proceedings. US rescue airlift cannot be continued ad infinitum.