Greening a White City

Greening a White City

While urbanites are still dabbling with the idea of reusable grocery totes and recyclable water bottles, Alaska’s capital city brought a whole new meaning to going green this past April when lines connecting Juneau to the Snettisham hydroelectric power plant were destroyed by an avalanche.

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Residents of Juneau quickly turned in their knitted mittens for a pair of green thumbs when an avalanche took down the city’s hydropower lines. On April 16, all lines connecting Juneau to the Snettisham hydroelectric power plant were destroyed, leaving the city with two options: lose a lot of green or go green.

Within one week following the avalanche, Juneau reduced its energy consumption by 30 percent, says Maria Gladziszewski, special projects officer for the city and borough of Juneau.

With toppled transmission towers, the once completely hydro-powered city was forced to switch from its environmentally friendly—and cheap—electricity to backup diesel-fueled generators, run by Alaska Electric Light and Power Company (AEL&P). And with diesel costing $4.17 per gallon, the fuel-guzzling, air-polluting generators skyrocketed rates 447 percent on customers’ electricity bills in the weeks following the disaster, says Scott Willis, AEL&P vice president and spokesperson. “The high cost of electricity motivated people to be very aggressive for short term savings,” he says. In efforts to lower costs and prevent future global-warming triggered disasters, Juneau residents went far beyond turning off running water while brushing their teeth.

At the Willis household, the energy-saving list grew to be quite long. Electricity conserving tasks included: unplugging the microwave after use (because of the digital clock), no baking, eating cold cereal instead of hot, unplugging the TV and its cable box nightly, replacing bulbs with compact fluorescent ones, turning off lights and power strips, and not using the electric garage door opener.

There was a lot of the “turn off/unplug variety,” says Gladziszewski. “Simply turning it off if you aren’t using it.” With one of the biggest energy-consuming appliances being the hot water heater, residents began washing their clothes in cold water and hanging them to dry outside. “You go out in town and you see a lot more clothes on the line then you ever saw,” says Gladziszewski. “The week after the avalanche, you couldn’t find a clothespin in town. They were all gone.” Some residents went as far as unplugging refrigerators and converting to old-fashioned iceboxes and turning off hot water heaters for three days at a time, says Willis.

Immediately following the emergency, AEL&P was burning 84,000 gallons of diesel per day to power Juneau. After excessive conservation efforts and heightened use of other smaller hydroelectric plants, this amount decreased to less than half, punching in at only 32,000 gallons per day. The diesel generators have since been shut off, returning the city to its “100 percent clean, renewable, zero-carbon hydroelectricity” on Sunday, June 1st. Although some predict conservations efforts to drop from 30 percent to 10/15 percent with the return of hydropower, Willis forecasts even lower. “My guess is closer to two or three percent,” he says. “Nearly all of this conservation was driven by price, not strong environmental concern. Once the price comes back down, I expect most of the use to come back.”

Gladziszewski remains more positive.

“Surely the aggressive conservation is not sustainable,” she says, “but a good deal of the conservation is sustainable and people are talking like they will continue to do those things and I do absolutely think that.”

Since the use of hydropower is currently back and in full force, electricity rates are similar to prices seen before the avalanche, returning to just over 11 cents per kWh. Because of the quick turnaround in fixing the electricity lines, the highest diesel rate will only be in effect for one month. And what about those who can’t afford it? The city government stepped in and allocated $3 million in funds to assist low-income households, needy businesses, and non-for-profits pay their bills.

To lessen the chances of a similar electricity disaster, AEL&P has another hydro plant in the works, which should be ready for use next year. If no other severe problems occur, Juneau will have used 88 percent hydropower and 12 percent diesel in 2008. “Still a remarkable amount of renewable energy,” Willis says. In 2007, only 1 percent of electricity was powered by diesel.

The city’s electricity is running again on what Gladziszewski calls the “holy grail of clean energy,” and residents hope it will stay that way.

“It took this energy disaster for us to pay attention,” she says, “but we are just proof, Juneau is proof, that it can be done. All it takes is people’s knowledge about energy.”

By Kathryn Kondracki for Next American City.

Tags: energyutilities

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