Juneau heeds the call for sacrifice

The residents of Juneau, Alaska have achieved an astounding 38% drop in electricity usage in a matter of weeks through simple conservation measures:

> 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.

Stories like this always highlight to me the promise and the limits of energy conservation. On the one hand — 38% in less than a month! You just can’t beat energy conservation and efficiency for speed or cost-effectiveness. No other solutions have such promise in the very near term.

On the other hand, the central irony of the situation is that Juneau’s carbon footprint has undoubtedly gone up during the past month, probably by a massive amount. The city just switched from clean, cheap hydroelectric power to expensive, dirty diesel power. Conservation is a means, not an end, and in this case the environment was better off when residents were less efficiently using clean energy. Moreover, a lot of the conservation measures don’t sound all that sustainable in the long term. Residents are rightly thankful the power cut didn’t come during the long Alaskan winter.

Hopefully the happy ending to the story is that residents will get their hydroelectic power back later this summer and also retain some of their new energy-thrifty habits, tracing a path in microcosm that we all eventually need to follow.

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  1. Conservation, Efficiency - May 15, 2008

    Adam —
    I read of this situation and drew some similar conclusions, but not the same bottom line. Conservation is an end, not just a means.
    No doubt, their 38% reduction is not sustainable, and as you rightly point out, it has resulted in transfer to much worse alternatives.
    But what I thought was remarkable is really how much potential there is — at least 38%, and probably a lot more. What this means to me is that there is certainly at least a modest amount of conservation or efficiency gain that is sustainable and could be made structural … with proper incentives.
    I think we (Americans? People? Environmentalists?) tend to think in absolutes and thus are dismissive of partial or incremental solutions. So let’s say that a five percent reduction in use could be sustained, and another 5% could be gained from increased efficiencies, once all the hydro-power comes back online in Juneau. A 10% reduction would, in aggregate, be huge.
    The reason that this Juneau event is notable is that it shows us possibilities that most people would have dismissed as unimportant.
    Hybrid vehicles are similar. They are only a small step in reducing demand. But they also do two things: 1) show that it is possible to nearly double efficiency with almost no “sacrifice”, and 2) put an electric motor platform in a car. Today the motor is powered by gas + regenerated electricity, but that already has lead to another option, plug-in vehicles that use power from the grid.
    And while plug-in vehicles will draw dirty coal-powered fuel off today’s electric grid, tomorrow, some of that power might be clean wind, hydro or solar. Indeed, increased demand for electricity is something that should encourage investment, right?
    The point about hybrids is just that the fact that they are flawed, incremental, and minor in the grand scheme should not make us ignore them.
    What’s important is that we just start making changes. Most people don’t believe those changes are possible. Juneau’s event shows they are. And, like the hybrid, maybe one change will lead to another.

  2. Adam Stein - May 15, 2008

    Tom — we seem to be in agreement here. Many efficiency practices clearly are sustainable in the long run. I hope I didn’t imply otherwise.

  3. Nick G - May 26, 2008

    Adam, we linked to this on our blog too, we think it has a lesson to tell to our core audience of UK/Ireland business energy users.
    Obviously 38% reduction isn’t sustainable, but it surprised a lot of people as do most examples of efficiency reductions. Business people are convinced that they are already lean and mean, and are amazed when proven otherwise. On the other side, I think the greener greens are often suspicious of efficiency savings. Both save carbon, but do I detect sometimes a disappointment that saving energy in order to save money is not as noble as using the same amount of energy when generated sustainably?
    On a completely different subject, can you help me on this? I used to live in the US, and noticed that many people can’t drive a standard transmission car and that they are very hard to find anyway. People like my wife find it bizarre that there is no choice when we rent a car in the US. She actually doesn’t like driving an automatic, and that isn’t uncommon when you speak to a European (or Japanese, Australian, Brazilian )tourist.
    My question is this: What would be the impact on carbon if American simply drove stick shifts like 90% of everyone else on the planet?

  4. Adam Stein - May 27, 2008

    Hi Nick,
    I think deep greens are pretty on board with energy efficiency, although I think you’re right to detect a note of disappointment among a small subset of people who are hoping that climate change is going to force a dramatic reconsideration of the Way We Live. So it goes, I guess.
    In answer to your question: it seems as though standard transmissions increase fuel efficiency by roughly 10%. Transportation is roughly 30% of America’s carbon footprint, but roughly half of that is trucking. So switching wholesale to standard transmissions might result in a 10% x 15% = 1.5% reduction.
    But of course, this isn’t going to happen, and I think really electric drivetrains are where we’re heading anyway :)