Juneau Goes Into Conservation Overdrive

A series of avalanches in April cut off the Alaskan capital from its source of cheap hydropower. The cost of electricity has quadrupled as a result. Juneau has been forced to cut its power consumption by nearly a third in one week. John Ryan of member station KTOO reports.

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People in Juneau, Alaska, are getting an unexpected lesson in conservation. Two weeks ago, avalanches cut off the city's access to cheap hydropower. And that meant electrical bills would quadruple. So Alaska's capital city quickly went into conservation overdrive.

As John Ryan of member station KTOO reports, Juneau has reduced its electricity consumption by nearly one-third.

JOHN RYAN: In stores, offices and homes all over town, appliances and lights have been unplugged, thermostats and water heaters turn down.

(Soundbite of birds)

RYAN: Outside the Alaskan & Proud supermarket in downtown Juneau, ravens hop along the busy parking lot. Shoppers Catherine Andrews(ph), Nell Thomlinson(ph) and Pat Bock(ph) say they've made some big changes to keep their electricity bills from exploding.

Mr. NELLS THOMLINSON (Shopper): I take my showers in the dark with the window open instead of the fan running.

Mr. PAT BOCK (Shopper): We're washing dishes and clothing with cold water.

Ms. CATHERINE ANDREWS (Shopper): Adding socks, gloves, blankets and appliances that you never knew you could do without, you can do without.

RYAN: Big box stores and other major consumers in town have also powered down. The Juneau Airport has even turned off its runway lights, except when planes are actually taking off or approaching. The city brought Alan Meier of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory up from California to teach them how to save even more energy. Myer says Juneau has surprised him.

Mr. ALAN MEIER (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory): I haven't ever seen a community reduce its electricity consumption so rapidly as we have seen in Juneau. And this is even before consumers have seen a price. They haven't seen higher bills yet.

RYAN: When bills at the new rate start arriving this month, Juneau will be paying five times the national average for electricity; that's because Juneau is now running on diesel. Outside the offices of Alaska Electric Light and Power, plumes of diesel exhaust shimmer with heat. Generators the size of railroad cars are running around the clock to meet the city's demand for power.

They might keep running for three months. That's how long Scott Willis of the power company says it will take to reconnect Juneau to its primary source of hydropower.

Mr. SCOTT WILLIS (Alaska Electric Light and Power): These avalanches happen in a very remote, very rugged environment. We can't drive equipment up to these tower sites. It all has to be done by helicopter and we have to wait until the snow is cleared to be able to even access the existing foundations.

RYAN: City officials are focusing on how to soften the blow of high electricity bills for the hardest hit customers. So far they've reduced the sales tax on electricity and they're seeking state and federal help.

In the meantime, Alaskan Brewing Company President Geoff Larson isn't sure how much more he can do to reduce his $10,000-a-month electricity bill. On the floor of his bottling plant, he says he invested heavily in improving energy efficiency before Juneau's current emergency. But he said he's not surprised by Juneau's rapid response in a crisis.

Mr. GEOFF LARSON (President, Alaskan Brewing Company): That resourcefulness, the ability to sit there and respond, in Alaska and in Juneau I think it's kind of ingrained in where we are.

RYAN: The bad news for Juneau energy conservers: cutting their consumption by a third won't keep their bills from skyrocketing. If they want to bring their costs down to pre-avalanche rate, they'll need to more than double their conservation efforts to date.

For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Juneau, Alaska.

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