It was a Friday, 11 March 2011. At 2.46 pm, Tokyo time, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake stuck off the coast of Japan, setting off a terrible tsunami that devastated the entire northeast coast.


The Great East Japan Earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded to hit Japan and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since 1900, struck just some 70 kilometres east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku, sending homes collapsing and skyscrapers in even far away Tokyo swaying. Even in earthquake prone Japan, where people are used to several tremors every year, people were thrown off their feet , the earth moving beneath them. However, the worst was yet to come.

Even as people began to pick themselves up, a horrible shrill siren blasted through the air. There was a tsunami heading their way. The earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres in Miyako Tōhoku’s Iwate Prefecture. Even as people tried to make their way inland to escape the coming deluge, the tsunami struck. In Sendai, the waves travelled as much as 10 km inland, engulfing houses, cars, and even high-rise buildings. Fishing boats were carried into the center of what used to be towns, as a ghastly testament to the power of the waves.


Over 16,000 people lost their lives that day, with over 6,000 people injured and over 2,500 people still missing across twenty prefectures. 230,000 people have been displaced, without homes to return to. Even as the human costs tally up, the tsunami collapsed over 400,000 buildings, damaging yet another 750,000 more. The earthquake and tsunami also caused extensive structural damage to roads, railways, and even collapsed a dam. The most infamous victim of the earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, caused a whole host of problems further down the line as meltdowns saw a nuclear disaster unseen since Chernobyl in 1986.

As people overcame their shock and began to take stock of their surroundings, there was an urgent need to take care of the living survivors. Here, LPG played a crucial role in bringing energy to a people that was desperately trying to gain access to a quick, modern and clean way to cook, generate electricity and provide warmth.


Naturally, with such massive devastation, the LPG infrastructure was not spared. The refinery and LPG import terminal in the Miyagi prefecture and the refinery in Chiba were heavily damaged together with petroleum product terminals and LP Gas terminals along the coast. Many household that use propane cylinders were also whisked away by the tsunami and many local LPG distributors had their filling facilities and supply chains damaged. The Japanese government even had to tap into the national stockpile to increase supply as the grounding of a 91,000 GT cargo ship at an import terminal caused by the tsunami, blocked critical imports.


However, even with such extensive damage to the LPG supply chain, recovery was surprisingly fast. LPG
is a distributable source of energy such that it does not rely on a central distribution point. Due to the existence of LPG stock at terminals in local tanks and cylinder depositories, Japan was able to recover the LPG supply chain quickly. Even with many LPG trailers damaged and destroyed because of the tsunami, the remaining trailers managed to get together and filled up the distribution gap in the earthquake-affected areas all across Japan.


The affected area (Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaragi and Chiba) had 4.039 million households using propane and a further 2.2 million households using piped city gas. With the pipeline network damaged by the quake and tsunami, the 2.2 million households quickly got access to energy again through LPG deliveries. The city gas companies in the area supplied SNG to their customers who lost gas through damaged pipeline networks. Stand-by propane – air SNG systems are also very useful. They keep the portable gas manufacturing facilities using propane as a form of disaster prevention equipment.


After the earthquake, most petrol stations were forced to stop their services or shorten their business hours. Motorists had to queue up for hours to fill gasoline even in Tokyo. These troubles were caused
by the shortage of oil product supply due to the earthquake’s widespread destruction. With diesel and petroleum supply cut off and in short supply, energy in the form of LPG became even more important in meeting the energy needs in an post-crisis Japan. Autogas, on the contrary to petrol, allowed drivers to refuel Autogas without much difficulty. Taxies in Japan are mostly fuelled by Autogas and these vehicles were able to transport people and even assist with transporting relief supplies to shelters as well.


An example of how LPG provided a valuable lifeline in disaster recovery was evident very quickly when shelters were set up for the people displaced by the tsunami. In one instance, more than one hundred people who survived the tsunami crossed the snowy mountain to search for shelter. Cold, hungry and desperate, the survivors were greeted by a hot meal provided for by propane cylinders and cooking propane stoves that were available in a local parish office. Neighbours provided shelter and some semblance of order was quickly restored to care for the survivors. The parish office became a meal center fuelled by LPG and there was enough in storage to continue feeding the survivors for days because LPG distributors in the area brought kitchen kits including propane cylinders and propane cook stoves for meal centers into temporary shelters so that survivors could cook meals and warm themselves.


Electricity supply was cut off in many areas and modern city life that depended on electricity suffered. For example, the service of the commuting trains was suspended. Stand-by generators fueled by propane
were used to generate electricity at temporary shelters that were set up to house survivors to secure necessary lighting and communication while the electricity grid was disrupted.


More than 52,000 units of the temporary housing for evacuees was built in northern Japan. They were equipped with propane facilities including heating units, cook stoves and hot water baths. More than 50,000 houses were rented for evacuees about 50% of which were propane fuelled.


LPG’s role in saving lives in post- crisis Japan cannot be overstated.


Important Learning Points from the Disaster
Energy storage assets play a critical role in supporting critical infrastructure and services during times of natural disaster. However, while extremely valuable when needed, most energy storage assets remain idle for long periods of time and are viewed as “sunk” costs without the ability to generate revenue. In this regard, LPG as a versatile and exceptional energy source that can be stored and replenished easily becomes a practical and effective energy storage solution for disaster recovery.


This was particularly evident in the case of Japan.


After the disaster, the local governments started planning for LPG to become an essential part of their disaster recovery plan. Schools, hospitals, local community centers, and other public facilities were nominated as local disaster shelters which were equipped with LPG cylinders, LPG bulk tanks, propane generators, propane cook stoves and kitchen sets. Offices with bulk propane tanks could even be used as temporary shelters in the case of an emergency.


People are also advised to stored/ use LPG in their residences, even during normal times. When disasters take place, land transportation is usually congested and it may become difficult to access shelters and accessible LPG tanks could provide a valuable lifeline.


Disaster Prevention Arrangement among Japanese LPG industry and the government
In order to facilitate the continuous supply of LPG in times of emergency, the government of Japan has facilitated a cooperation agreement between the members of the Japanese LPG industry. During an emergency, LPG importers could initiate discussions to borrow LPG from each other and take delivery of LPG at their agreed terminals. LPG inventory would be shared amongst all importers in this regard to ensure that enough LPG is available to cover emergency needs.


Each local LPG Association located in the 47 Japanese administrative divisions including
in the capital, Tokyo is part of the cooperation agreement with the local government where the association is located. When disaster strikes, they will cooperate with the local government by supplying propane cylinders and necessary equipment.



New initiative by the government and the LPG industry
As a harsh lesson was learned from the 11th March disaster, the Japanese government nominated
340 LPG filling plants throughout Japan as core LPG filling plants to keep LPG supply to the local people in the event of a disaster. The LPG filling plants have been equipped with stand-by generators, autogas vehicles to transport LPG cylinders and satellite communication systems. The core LPG filling plants and supply chains of LPG is expected to be strengthened further in the future. The government has decided to provide four transportable power generation systems that will be configured to deal with disasters. This will allow LPG to be transported to the LPG import terminals to maintain LPG supply even in the case of a failed grid supply of electricity.

(LPG Business Review)