Editorial: Juneau Saves Electricity in a Hurry

July 01, 2008
July/August 2008
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2008 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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What do you do when the price of electricity suddenly jumps fivefold? This was the dilemma faced by the residents of Juneau, Alaska, when an avalanche suddenly cut the transmission line to their source of cheap hydropower. The answer is conserve, conserve, and (in case you weren’t paying attention), conserve. In only a few weeks, Juneau’s electricity consumption fell 30% (see Figure 1). This represents the largest and fastest regional reduction in electricity consumption without blackouts in recent history. Juneau easily surpassed the 2001 record held by Brazil—20% in a few months—and California’s 15% reduction in response to Enron and its friends.

But how exactly did the citizens of Juneau cut their electricity use? No careful study has been undertaken, but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence. They focused first on saving what they could see and feel. The avalanche hit at the tail end of the heating season, so lower thermostats were the first target for action in the approximatly 20% of homes that relied on electric heating.

Lighting was a target for conservation in homes, stores, and offices. Juneau became much more vigilant, switching off lights in unoccupied rooms and lowering light levels in rooms that were occupied. There’s also nothing like 55¢/kWh electricity to increase interest in CFLs. Indeed, the hardware stores quickly sold out (and couldn’t restock until the next barge arrived from Seattle).

Many homes in Juneau rely on electricity to heat water, so conserving hot water became popular. People took shorter showers and washed clothes at colder settings. Many discovered that their water heaters had thermostats that could be lowered, resulting in further savings.

Juneau had an unexpected introduction to the pervasive nature of standby power use in homes as people surveyed the number of appliances—from TVs, computers, and speakers to microwave ovens, digital picture frames, and set-top boxes—that constantly drew power. Sales of power strips soared as Juneau devised more convenient ways to unplug these devices.

And of course, people undertook some measures that backfired or didn’t save energy, such as raising the temperature settings of refrigerators (health risk); washing dishes by hand (much less efficient than running a full dishwasher); and frequently unplugging set-top boxes (delays in rebooting).

More important than any single measure, the citizens of Juneau put electricity conservation front and center in their daily life. They swapped tips and experiences at the grocery store, in the schools, and on talk shows. Conservation became not just acceptable, but popular.

Juneau will have celebrated its own kind of early Independence Day this June with the repair of the transmission line. Already people are asking how much conservation will persist after the rates drop. I am confident that demand will increase as people abandon the most inconvenient belt-tightening measures. But I predict that demand will never return to preavalanche levels. People won’t remove their CFLs or turn up the thermostat on their water heaters, and some of those conserving habits—well—seem like a good idea in any event.

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