Vending machines are an integral part of Japanese culture. These ubiquitous beacons of convenience are as diverse as they are creative. A bit of number-crunching reveals that there is one machine available for every 25 people in the country, compared to the U.S., which boasts about one vending machine for every 44 people.

In Japan, more than 40 percent of the brightly colored machines sell soft drinks, while others offer a dizzying array of products, from hot coffee to draft beer, noodles, hot meals, cigarettes, neckties and bowling shoes. Some of the machines even talk

But this modern convenience faced challenges in the wake of the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which triggered a lasting nuclear crisis and turned off about 30 percent of the country's electricity generation capacity. As of October 2012, all but two of Japan’s 50 operational nuclear reactors remain shut down, and the nation is relying on expensive fuel imports to make up the shortfall. Controversy reigns over the best way to meet the country’s energy needs going forward.

Vending machines are a part of that energy need. In 2011, more than 5 million units were installed in Japan, according to the Japanese Vending Manufacturers Association (JVMA). The amount of electricity those machines consume is a fraction of Japan's total usage, but in the weeks following the Tohoku disaster, as the government was forced to implement scheduled blackouts, every power-using device was vulnerable.

In the weeks following the quake, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara took aim at vending machines and pachinko parlors (which are a combination of arcades/gambling establishments). The Wall Street Journal reports on the governor’s concern, noting that he said, “There is no other country in the world that would use nearly 10 million kilowatts of energy for this kind of thing.” (That’s roughly about twice the generation capacity the six disabled Fukushima Daiichi reactors produced in a year. But the machines also raked in $67 billion in sales during a time when the economy was suffering badly — and despite the crisis, sales dropped only about 2 percent in 2011, according to the JVMA.

Keeping Beverages Cool Without Power

Coca-Cola has nearly 1 million machines installed across the country, so the scheduled blackouts that took place after the quake were “a really, really critical issue,” recalls Yoshinari Okuyama of Coca-Cola's R&D division in Tokyo.

First, the company tried staggering vending machine shutdowns throughout the morning, afternoon and evening, which helped save energy, but didn’t keep the beverages cold. “It’s kind of defeating the vending machine purpose [to operate this way], and we couldn't keep doing it every summer,” Okuyama says. “So that's how we started Apollo.”

While not as momentous as the landmark 1969 moon mission of the same name, Apollo — Coca-Cola’s ultra-energy-saving vending machine development project — nonetheless represented a similarly unimaginable ambition within the already innovative vending machine industry. Okuyama's team set out to design a machine that could be shut down for up to 16 hours at a time and still dispense ice-cold drinks. It was a goal considered “impossible” at first.

But several months later, as temperatures crept into the nineties, the team was field-testing the A011 units, which only use power for cooling at night when electricity demand is lower. The experiment paid off: The machines kept drinks cold while reducing daytime energy use by 95 percent and consuming 10 percent less energy overall than an average machine.

To achieve these impressive results, Okuyama’s team partnered with Fuji Electric and relied on vacuum insulation to prevent loss of cold air. They also bucked a key convention of vending machine design: Instead of cooling just a portion of the drinks, as most machines do, the A011 chills the entire beverage, so that it “functions like ice cubes in a cooler,” Okuyama explains. The result? The beverages stay cold longer — even when the power is off.

Dispensing Better Efficiency

Of course, efforts to improve vending machine efficiency didn’t begin with the crisis in Japan. “Long before the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese media were reporting that the vast numbers of vending machines installed outdoors, for example on Mt. Fuji, were lighting up the country at 3 o’clock in the morning, and suggesting that this was not cost-effective,” noted Timothy R. Sanford, editor of the U.S. trade publication Vending Times, in an e-mail interview.

Over the past several years, vending manufacturers have implemented a number of energy-saving measures, such as switching to LED lighting, allowing for timed shutdowns and using more efficient components. The U.S.-based VendingMiser system, for example, employs a sensor to light machines up or down, depending on whether consumers are nearby. That approach, notes Sanford, offers machine owners “an effective way to combine merchandising (‘Look! A vending machine!’) and energy conservation.”

In 2004 the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Energy Star program introduced a standard for vending machines. And new federal efficiency standards that went into effect in August 2012 will lower utility bills by $150 a year per machine and ultimately prevent 4 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. “Manufacturers are keenly aware of this [standard],” says Sanford. “A similar evolution is taking place in the European Union.”

The vending industry is taking measures to make machines not just more efficient but more useful during a crisis as well. After the Japan quake, Coca-Cola rolled out specialized machines that solicited donations for victims, and in the future, manufacturers are ensuring that machines will be better equipped to dispense information, free drinks and food (some of them using a hand-cranked system) during an emergency.

For now, Coca-Cola plans to roll out the A011 more extensively in 2013. But because an average vending machine can last 10 years, replacing them is “a long journey,” Okuyama says. “Will all Coca-Cola vending machines become Apollos? Probably not. But we want to [introduce] as many as possible.”