Thursday, May 15, 2008

During its darkest hours Juneau's residents shine

In 1978 I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts when Boston and its surrounding suburbs (which included Cambridge) was buried by what would become known as the Great Blizzard of '78. Wind-swept snow fell for 33 hours straight. The Greater Boston Metropolitan Area ground to a standstill in the aftermath of the storm. Vehicles were abandoned on the highway. Public transportation was shut down. All but essential businesses were closed.

Meanwhile everyday life took on a surreal Currier-and-Ives-like appearance and pace. Cars were banned from the streets that filled with people walking, sledding, skiing and in general enjoying one another's company. Almost everyone you talked to commented on how wonderful it felt.

And then...the second the ban on automobile traffic was lifted it was all over in a flash.

Recently in Juneau, Alaska an avalanche knocked down electric transmission lines. The ensuring combination of a diminished supply of electricity and soaring rates for that which is available prompted residents to adopt a crash program in energy efficiency and conservation. It has been extremely instructive and inspiring in terms of what people can achieve in very short order.

Question is: will it last once the transmission lines are repaired? (GW)

A City Cooler and Dimmer, and, Oh, Proving a Point

JUNEAU, Alaska — Conservationists swoon at the possibility of it all. Here in Alaska, where melting arctic ice and eroding coastlines have made global warming an urgent threat, this little city has cut its electricity use by more than 30 percent in a matter of weeks, instantly establishing itself as a role model for how to go green, and fast.

Comfort has been recalibrated. The public sauna has been closed and the lights have been dimmed at the indoor community pool. At the library, one of the two elevators was shut down after someone figured out it cost 20 cents for each round trip. The thermostat at the convention center was dialed down eight degrees, to 60. The marquee outside is dark.

Schoolchildren sacrifice Nintendo time and boast at show-and-tell of kilowatts saved. Hotels consult safety regulations to be sure they have not unscrewed too many light bulbs in the hallways. On a recent weekday, all but one of the dozens of television screens on display at the big Fred Meyer store were black — off, that is.

Yet even as they embrace a fluorescent future, the 31,000 residents of Juneau, the state capital, are not necessarily doing it for the greater good. They face a more local inconvenient truth. Electricity rates rocketed about 400 percent after an avalanche on April 16 destroyed several major transmission towers that delivered more than 80 percent of the city’s power from a hydroelectric dam about 40 miles south.

“People are suddenly interested in talking about their water heaters,” said Maria Gladziszewski, who handles special projects for the city manager’s office. “As they say, it’s a teachable moment.”

Until repairs are completed, possibly by late June, the city’s private electric utility will depend almost exclusively on diesel fuel. Hydropower is one of the cheapest and cleanest power sources, while diesel, at around $4 a gallon, is one of the most expensive and dirtiest.

With the first bills based on the increased rate scheduled to be sent out this week, fear is in the air. So is the laundry. Dryers eat up watts, and local stores ran out of clothespins because so many people started hanging their laundry outside. Never mind that it rains 220 days of the year and rarely gets truly warm here amid the fjords and forests of the Inside Passage.

“It takes about two days to get them dry,” Linda Augustine, 66, an elementary school teacher, said as she used plastic clothes hangers to dry blue jeans and T-shirts under the awning on the back porch of her mobile home. “And I don’t iron my clothes now. You massage them to get the wrinkles out while they’re still on the hanger.”

The new rate is about 53 cents per kilowatt-hour, up from about 11 cents — around the national average — before the avalanche. The average residential bill before the avalanche was about $86 a month.

The greening of Juneau has made for an unexpected moment in the spotlight for a city some Alaskans would like to see play a lesser role. Clear skies in Juneau reveal sheer, snow-capped mountains lining the Gastineau Channel and bald eagles coasting over the water the way crows might elsewhere. But the city’s remote location and abundant dreariness, coupled with the fact that Anchorage — a nearly 600-mile flight away — has the state’s economic power and 10 times Juneau’s population, have long led to calls to move the capital.

“Before this event on April 16, the public discourse in Juneau in terms of its future was all focused on the perennial threat of having the capital relocated,” said Mayor Bruce Botelho. “It was the subject of three different pieces of legislation, all of which had hearings this year.”

Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican from an Anchorage suburb, has shown little interest in spending time in Juneau, one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds. While plenty of Juneau residents are irate that the electric utility, Alaska Electric Light and Power, could not prevent the avalanche damage and then passed on its costs to customers, they have also blamed Ms. Palin for rejecting a request for public money to help residents handle big bill increases.

“We need all the help we can get right now,” Ashley Richardson, of the Juneau People’s Power Project, said at a small protest on the Capitol steps on Friday. “This is not our responsibility.”

The governor has requested help from a federal loan program for small businesses hurt by the rate increase. Officials at the electric utility say they are looking at ways to ease the pain by allowing more residents to spread the higher costs over many months. The local United Way and other groups have received a city grant to help lower-income residents with their bills.

What the avalanche has underscored, however, is that Juneau is largely on its own, whether in meeting the energy challenge or facing the broader question of its future. The gold rush that helped create the city ended a century ago, and other resource-based industries, like other forms of mining and logging, have faded amid environmental pressures and economic changes. State government and tourism are the anchors now.

Many residents say they were at least relieved that the power problems started as the days were growing longer and warmer. Some, seeing a silver lining, wonder if the electricity challenge, and the conservation it has prompted, might spur a new economic creativity for a city recommitted to energy efficiency. (While residents have recently rushed to convert to compact fluorescent light bulbs, Juneau is still working toward mandatory curbside recycling and it has yet to complete an audit of its carbon footprint.)

Mr. Botelho, who said his in-box had been filling with messages from environmental start-up companies that want to make Juneau their proving ground, called the situation “the opportunity to be our own knights in shining armor.”

Evidence of the civic self-discipline is updated daily on the Web site of Alaska Electric Light and Power. The day before the avalanche, the city consumed 1,006 megawatt hours of electricity; on Friday, the number was 625.


Post a Comment

<< Home