RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Residents of Juneau, Alaska got a shock when they got their latest electricity bills. Rates had gone up between four and 500 percent. The rate hike followed avalanches last month, avalanches that knocked out transmission towers that connect the city to a dam that generates most of its power. The local utility company fired up back-up generators, but those generators run on costly diesel fuel.
Cash-strapped residents have responded with an extraordinary conservation campaign. We reached Kate Golden. She's a reporter for the Juneau Empire.
Ms. KATE GOLDEN (Juneau Empire): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, I understand the city has cut back on power usage by more than 30 percent. That's pretty amazing.
Ms. GOLDEN: That's right.
MONTAGNE: And how are you doing it, you all there in Juneau?
MS. GOLDEN: It's kind of a mix of lots of different conservation measures. Juneau's laundry is sort of blowing in the wind these days - at least when it's not raining. And my unmentionables were blowing in the breeze just yesterday. And I know a restaurant that's serving fewer soups to cut down on how many burners it uses. And it's dark in the office where I work and lots of other offices too. All over town you see these signs saying we apologize for the darkness, we're trying to conserve.
MONTAGNE: And what does that mean in practical terms? Now, I know it stays light quite late there at this time of the year, but when you go into the local supermarket, are the lights off?
Ms. GOLDEN: They're dimmer. There's nothing that's too traumatic. You know, the public sauna is closed. The downtown library's closed on Tuesdays. But there are certain cuts you just can't make - ovens and stoves and like our newspaper press. There's only so much you can conserve.
MONTAGNE: Now, utility bills must still be quite high, even though the city is cutting way back.
Ms. GOLDEN: Yes. If your regular bill is $100 for your house, maybe you conserve like crazy and you have your lights out and your laundry line and one of those pink blankets around your hot water heaters, you still might have a $300 bill. And for anybody who's on a really tight budget, that matters a great deal.
MONTAGNE: Are people angry? Probably frustrated and upset a little bit, right?
Ms. GOLDEN: It depends on who you ask. Some people are really taking it in stride, but then some people are really suspicious that the utility company is trying to pull one over on them or that it's been incompetent in dealing with all this.
The fact remains that there is this huge avalanche zone in the 40 miles between here and our hydropower plant. And we're putting the towers back in the same spot. So after the utility announced the first high bills, there was a protest in the middle of downtown by people who basically said we don't think we should be on the hook for this.
MONTAGNE: Is the state or the federal government doing anything to help?
Ms. GOLDEN: Yeah. The city has put aside about $3 million to go to low income people and the neediest businesses. And they're working out those plans now. It's all starting to emerge. People were frustrated at first that the governor, Sarah Palin, didn't immediately announce a disaster in Juneau, which would've helped with some federal funds. But she did declare it an economic injury, which means that some small business administration loans and funds might go to Juneau businesses.
MONTAGNE: Now, word is, I understand, that the transmission lines will be up and running in a month or two.
Ms. GOLDEN: That's probably right. A utility engineer I talked to said that he was hoping the hydropower would be restored around mid-July. And yet there is a tower scheduled to go in this afternoon. That's a major milestone for us. We're all hoping that the line will up sooner.
MONTAGNE: Is it possible that there's a silver lining in all of this? That is that Juneau could emerge from this experience a greener city?
Ms. GOLDEN: I think so. We've really become an energy conscience bunch. People have been boasting about their kilowatt hour savings the way they used to talk about calories. But whether it will last, I don't know. I'm certainly tired of working in the darkness. But I don't know anybody who uses regular old incandescent light bulbs anymore.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. GOLDEN: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Kate Golden is a reporter for the newspaper in Juneau, the Juneau Empire.
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