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Powering Down


It’s rare that anything happening in Juneau carries national significance, but the avalanche that took out our hydroelectric power two weeks ago has forced the entire community to reduce its electricity consumption by significant degrees.

Stores, though open, went partially dark. Neon signs were switched off and vending machines unplugged. At home, residents of this former Gold Rush town began living a little bit like pioneers, dusting the snow off the grill, stringing clotheslines in the backyard and flicking off their TV sets. Within a week, electrical usage across town was down as much as 30 percent.

Energy conservation is a hard sell in much of the U.S., but Juneau has proved that people will change their ways if the financial incentives are big enough.

“Turn off, turn down, unplug,” said Sarah Lewis, chairwoman of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. “That’s what everyone is doing and being vigilant about and commenting when others are not.”

The chief incentive for all this, of course, is financial; with the Snettisham facility off-line, our power is being supplied by diesel generators, which will drive up electricity costs by 400-500 percent in the coming months. For low-income residents — many of whom live in homes and apartments heated with electric baseboards — this is of course going to be catastrophic, and it appears unlikely that the state will be supplying disaster relief to any significant degree (the best anyone can hope for will be small business loans and lines of credit). The legislature changed the rules a few years back to disqualify “economic disasters” from consideration. Based on the cost of diesel, which powers much of rural Alaska already, a good case could be made that most of the state would qualify as an economic disaster.

No one is quite sure when the transmission lines will be repaired, but for now it’s been interesting to watch the changes in everyone’s daily routine. The AP article overstates the transition by invoking images of the “pioneer way of life,” but it’s certainly the case that everyone is suddenly thinking about energy consumption in terms of scarcity. AEL&P’s diesel generators are capable of handling Juneau’s usual levels of consumption, but it goes without saying that our incomes are not. What’s more remarkable, though, is what little effort it’s taken to knock back the community’s electricity consumption by nearly a third. Yes, businesses and workplaces and homes have gotten significantly darker, and folks are paying attention to energy consumption in all sorts of minor ways — I’ve suddenly become more conscientious, for example, about preserving the battery power on my laptop — but so far there have been no significant howls of despair over our reduced levels of consumption.

I’m not enough of an energy policy wonk to make any grand suggestions about the implications of all this, but what’s happening right now in Juneau really ought to be getting more national attention.

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  • Do you miss the neon signs and vending machines?

  • FMguru

    Something similar happened in California some years back, when Enron was doing their best to bankrupt the state. It took very little to get people to cut peak power usage 10-15%, mostly by turning off every third light in buildings and stores and people running their dishwashers and clothes dryers later at night. It wasn’t even economic, people just wanted to avoid rolling blackouts.

  • Jay B.

    So is your Internet connection being hand-cranked, d? Or are you just shouting into the tubes extra loud?

  • jon

    The US uses twice as much energy per capita as Europe, but our standard of living is not twice as good – it’s effectively equivalent.
    There are so many ways that we could avoid using power, conserve what we do use, and act more efficiently. What you are recounting shows how readily many of these shifts can be incorporated into our daily lives with little or no disruption.
    Obviously it’s best if these changes aren’t precipitated by disaster. This is where I’d say that Jim Kunstler is wrong: Peak Oil is a serious problem, but it doesn’t mean that the US will retreat to the Stone Age. We will make accommodations, we will improvise and innovate, and we will muddle through. Eventually, we can transition to an economy that is not wholly dependent on fossil hydrocarbons (or nuclear) and our society and economy will be the better for it.

  • Walt

    That’s funny, Jay B.

  • lemuel pitkin

    Peak Oil is a serious problem
    No. Peak Oil is not a problem at all. Abundant fossil fuels are much more of a threat to civilization, than scarce fossil fuels.
    And while Geography of Nowhere was a pretty good book, Kunstler has since become a loon.

  • va

    Man, if I was there I would just thank god it doesn’t require electricity to light cigarettes. Uffa.

  • d

    So is your Internet connection being hand-cranked, d? Or are you just shouting into the tubes extra loud?
    I’ve got my two dogs and two cats hooked up to treadmill generators. If you look under the kitchen sink, it’s like the Flintstones — little dinosaurs spinning the garbage disposal…
    I’m trying to figure a way to harness the activity of my daughter’s three goldfish, but they keep slipping out of the little fucking horse collars I made for them….

  • Hogan

    I’ve got my two dogs and two cats hooked up to treadmill generators.
    Maybe Henry will keep it in his pants, for a little while anyway.

  • witless chum

    Hogan, there’s clearly a stuffed animal just out of Henry’s reach motivating him to walk.

  • d

    Yeah, it’s pretty much Big Bird and a tube of Astroglide for Henry…

  • jon

    ‘Maybe Henry will keep it in his pants”…
    Henry has pants? That’s just sick…

  • Jay B.

    If you look under the kitchen sink, it’s like the Flintstones — little dinosaurs spinning the garbage disposal.
    It’s a living. [Squark!].

  • dusting the snow off the grill
    See, grills really are important for disaster-struck areas. Ain’t y’all shamed?

  • McKingford

    The problems of Peak Oil (and the much less talked about, but related, Peak Natural Gas) and abundant fossil fuels is interlinked.
    Oil and natural gas use have certainly contributed mightily to the high CO2 levels that are causing climate change. But they are much cleaner fuels than the most readily available substitute: coal. Peak oil in the abstract is not a problem, so long as societies transition gradually and effectively to alternative fuels. Unfortunately, it looks like peak oil is now upon us, and we *haven’t* made much effort to transition to anything else. For instance, the world still burns a lot of oil and natural gas to produce electricity. In an age of peak oil, this is folly. The likely immediate substitute is coal; one need only look to the number of coal burning plants that are coming on line in China as an example. (I should also say that the societal transition necessary to respond to peak oil goes beyond just substituting fuels or bringing electric cars (guffaw) on line; it goes to land-use policies, dramatically curbing sprawl and single passenger driving, while expanding transit, among other things).
    The net effect is that precisely at a time when we need to be curbing CO2 emissions, we will be reducing our dependence on cleaner (but nonetheless CO2 producing) fossil fuels and increasing reliance on a dirtier one.
    On the issue of whether Peak oil or abundant fossil fuels is the problem, it is not an issue of either/or, but very much a problem of both.

  • coozledad

    I’m a panic stricken person by nature, but I’ve been preparing for a return to a largely animal-powered world. When I was growing up in the South, the mule industry was in its last twilight. As recently as the fifties, farms in piedmont North Carolina were predominantly plowed and disced by animals. I remember watching old men plowing with mules when I was about six or seven. By the late sixties, gas was so cheap, it justified the huge initial cost of tractors, and made draft farming quaint and uncompetitive. It’s likely that a return to smaller farms and biointensive practices will replace the fascination with tractors. It’ll take a while. But poverty and near starvation have a way of turning things around.

  • Hogan

    Henry has pants? That’s just sick…
    Have you seen Henry without pants? THAT’S sick.

  • Woodrowfan

    Have you considered harnessing Henry’s thrusting power? Maybe attach a stuffed animal to a generator??

  • Gridlock

    “living a little bit like pioneers … stringing clotheslines in the backyard”
    See, file this under “101 things Ben will never understand about Americans”; You have gardens, land, lots of it. You have sunshine, fresh air and (I assume) clothes pegs.
    Hang your god-damn clothes out once in a while! Save money, chemicals and probably time (my clothes can dry in 30 minutes on a summer’s day)

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