Japan: where yelling 'Batter up!' may turn off the lights

As the long, muggy summer sets in, the thoughts of Japan's 10 major power companies naturally turn to baseball. With the price of crude oil disappearing out of the ball park, power company executives tend to wince every time an umpire shouts "play ball."

It may not seem obvious, but there is a close connection between Japan's current energy conservation program and its favorite sport. Having converted rapidly from coal to oil during Japan's high growth era, the power companies have been hard hit by the present energy crisis.

Oil now accounts for about 70 percent of national power generation, prompting the government to urge every Japanese to cooperate in saving energy. Thus, the 12 professional baseball teams this season have largely rescheduled their weekend night games to the daytime.

Leaving stadiums unlit doesn't save much energy. Professional baseball was merely making a gesture to encourage the rest of the nation to follow suit, since an estimated 80 percent of all Japanese follow the sport closely.

But the power companies were not at all encouraged by the baseball clubs' action. The summer heat is usually so oppressive that the millions who follow the games on television do so in air-conditioned comfort. This combination of extra television watching and air-conditioner usage boosts power consumption and worries utility executives.

The biggest challenge for the power companies, however, is yet to come: the national high school championships.

Some 3,000 games take place in local eliminations from late spring until the end of July, when the surviving 50 schools meet in the finals at the gaint Koshien Stadium in Osaka.

For two weeks, Japan becomes baseball crazy. there is virtually no other topic of conversation, and the games are broadcast on radio and television from the time the first pitch is tossed until the final out. Many cluster around television sets -- whether at home, the office, barber shop, or department store.

The Tokyo Power Company estimates that television watching during last year's championships boosted normal consumption by 1 to 1.5 million kilowatt hours a day in Tokyo.

Some years ago, the whole nation was absorbed with the performance of a pitcher from an obscure country school, Susumu Egawa, who was proving virtually unhittable in the preliminaries.

When his team played at Koshien (losing 1-0 in 14 innings), nationwide power usage rose 66 percent over the previous record consumption day.

The system survived the surge. But the government decided to look into the problem. Last year, the Ministry of Trade and Industry calculated that the tournament consumed at least 1.3 million barrels of oil.Officials urged either a total suspension of TV coverage or a substantial reduction in hours.

The plea, however, went unheeded. After all, there is virtually no greater honor in Japan for a boy, school, or community, than to play at Koshien -- and be seen on national television. As this year's tournament draws near, power companies are again becoming apprehensive.

Last year, Tokyo Electric reported its maximum daytime load surged to almost 29 million kilowatts, close to its capacity of 30 million kilowatts.

The proliferation of air conditioners is bound to push demand higher this year. They consumed one-third of the daytime power supply last year and are projected to divert between 40 and 50 percent this time.

A Tokyo electric official confides: "I have this recurring nightmare. It is bottom of the ninth in a drawn game, with bases loaded; there are two outs, and the pitcher has a full count on the batter. As he winds up to pitch -- several substations break down, and that wouldn't take very much because we are desperately close to the limit.

"I don't think we could live with the shame. Let's hope it is a cold August, with boring games and no outstanding players."

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