During the past two weeks, people in Juneau, Alaska, have cut their power use by 20 percent. They've been turning down thermostats, unplugging appliances and switching to fluorescent bulbs. The local Juneau Empire reports that so many people have started hanging out their laundry that it's impossible to find a clothespin in town.
What's afoot in Juneau isn't a sudden urge to go green and save the planet. Rather, people in Juneau are trying to save money after an unusually large avalanche knocked out their relatively cheap hydroelectric power. A snowslide on April 16 wiped out a 1.5-mile stretch of transmission lines.
For now, the local utility is powering the city with electricity made by burning diesel fuel. But with the price of diesel nearing $4 a gallon, Alaska Electric Light and Power is warning customers to expect bills five times the usual amount — retroactive to the avalanche and continuing at least through May.
Reporter John Ryan of Alaska Public Radio station KTOO says that with so much conservation going on, the city is noticeably darker.
"It seems almost universal," he says, with individuals and businesses actively seeking to reduce their use of power.
He says the local airport now keeps the runways dark unless a plane is actually landing or taking off. The streetlights are off, he says, and people are wearing more sweaters. KTOO has turned off its digital TV transmitter to save money, he says. At home, he tries to use as few lights as possible and turns each one off as soon as he no longer needs it.
"When you're expecting a fivefold increase in your electricity bills," he says, "that's a pretty good incentive to change your habits."
Juneau officials have not yet noticed any adverse environmental effects from burning so much fossil fuel, Ryan reports. But he expects that to change as the generators keep cranking in coming months. "We've gone from having one of the cleanest energy supplies anywhere, and now we're turning to diesel," he says.
Meanwhile, the avalanche has shown that people can change their habits — and quickly — if the stakes are high enough. "The mayor sees this as what he calls 'a teachable moment,' one that can really bring energy issues into people's minds," Ryan says.