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.