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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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