The Big Save

One morning last April, a massive set of avalanches took down more than a mile’s worth of the transmission lines that carry power down the mountainside from the Snettisham hydroelectric facility to Juneau, Alaska’s capital. The Snettisham hydro project produces the vast majority of the city’s power, so with three transmission towers destroyed and two others damaged, the local utility company was forced to switch to a much more expensive backup plan: diesel-burning generators. Overnight, the price of electricity for the city’s approximately 30,000 residents nearly quintupled.

Massive power shortages can do more than wreak havoc for ratepayers, they pose serious risks to a community’s safety and economic wellbeing. Blackouts and brownouts disrupt office life and factory schedules, suddenly stop elevators and darken traffic signals, and create health hazards for the very young, the very old, the very sick, and anyone else who relies on stable heating, cooling, or plug-in medical devices. But the emergency also posed a rare and valuable challenge. Juneau had a chance to find out how much a community’s power demand can be quickly and steeply reduced—and to discover what changes can carry over after the crisis is past.

Juneau’s utility, the Alaska Electric Light and Power Company, did its best to quickly alert customers to the rate change, offering the option of spreading the increase out over a year’s worth of bills. But thrifty and conscientious residents were clearly eager to save energy. “The day following the avalanche, the office became a beehive of conversation with walk-in customers looking for ideas,” recalls Gayle Wood, the company’s director of consumer affairs. “Suddenly, folks were curious about such things as the amount of energy that dusty thirty-year-old freezer was using.” The company’s small office was so besieged with inquiries that it had to hire two temps and even recall retirees to handle the demand for information.

Juneau needed all the help it could get guiding the city’s conservation efforts. By chance, a student who had recently returned from taking classes in California suggested just the guy: Dr. Alan Meier, a senior scientist in the Energy Analysis Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Meier, who also teaches courses in energy conservation at UC Davis, specializes in saving electricity in a hurry; in fact, Saving Electricity in a Hurry is the name of the book he published in 2005 while working for the International Energy Agency. Meier has studied dozens of similar power outages, from the rolling blackouts during California’s 2001 energy crisis, to a situation that same year in Brazil when a drought left the nation’s almost entirely hydroelectric system parched, to the 2003 squeeze on Tokyo’s electric supply after seventeen nuclear reactors—about half of the city’s generating power—were temporarily taken offline because utility officials were discovered to have been falsifying safety reports.

These kinds of power shortfalls have a common thread, says Meier: in each case the problem is temporary and solvable, because the power-generating infrastructure remains intact. However, electricity use must be sharply curtailed virtually overnight.That leaves local authorities with an unattractive set of options. “You really have to rely on either just having blackouts—which are economically destructive and also dangerous to life and health— or instead you have to rely on getting people to change their habits,” Meier says. “The question is, `How do you do that?’”

It’s a trickier question than it seems at first glance. Many of the kinds of power-saving solutions that the government is used to pushing—providing rebates for people who switch to more energy-efficient appliances, encouraging the weatherization of homes, creating standards for more eco-friendly buildings—make slow, permanent changes. An avalanche bowling over a city’s transmission towers instead demands a rapid response to a temporary problem. Additionally, as Meier points out, you can’t rely on pricing and market forces to control energy consumption because most people only get a utility bill once a month—by the time they find out how sharply the price of power has skyrocketed, they’ve already used far too much of it.

And of course, most people already know the basics of conservation: turn down the thermostat, keep the lights dim and the drapes open, wear a sweater. Within a few days of the avalanche, Juneau’s stores had been cleaned out of compact fluorescent lightbulbs, and customers had to wait for more to arrive via the weekly barge shipment from Seattle. “Juneau is situated in a rainforest, and it was common to hear stories about [people] using clotheslines for the first time, or hanging clothes to dry in garages,” recalls Wood. “There was a run on clothespins and drying racks.” But those household measures alone, even when undertaken collectively, aren’t enough to relieve the strain on overwhelmed utilities during a crisis. A community often needs to look for bigger, broader solutions.

At the invitation of city officials, Meier decamped to Juneau to help it find those big ways to save energy. “One thing I had to work on very quickly is to figure out, overall, in the city where electricity goes,” he recalls. Partly, he determined, it was going to the airport, which was leaving runway lights on even when planes weren’t landing. But more surprisingly, much of it was going down the drain. “Even though it was raining out, and Juneau is a terribly wet place, because of the delicate environment they had to invest a lot of electricity in delivering the water and even more in treating the sewage,” says Meier.

According to a newspaper editorial published by Juneau mayor Bruce Botelho, managing Juneau’s water supply is the city’s biggest single electrical demand. The city pumps more than three million gallons of water every day from surface level up to storage reservoirs used to maintain water pressure. Because of the quintupled power rates, doing so cost the city an extra $15,000 per day. Even using cold water—much less water that had been electrically heated—was becoming a double drain on resources. As a result, an energy conservation campaign that began by asking people to mind their light switches ended with asking them to monitor the tap.

Since about a third of energy is consumed at home, part of Meier’s task on his Juneau visit was to dispel myths about which household conservation measures truly save electricity and which don’t. (See sidebar for Meier’s do’s and don’ts.) But how do you stage a media campaign to reach out to residents when you’re also telling everyone to unplug their entertainment center? “That’s a challenge,” Meier admits. “That’s why I spent time on every medium possible,” including radio, newspapers, blogs, and live visits throughout the city. Among Meier’s many stops: a fish processing plant, where he examined the company’s refrigeration unit; several low-income housing units, where he spoke with managers about how to reduce electricity usage; and a brewery, where, he says, “I had absolutely no idea what to suggest partly because they were completely on top of things.” He also made the rounds of schools and office buildings, where he urged occupants to be responsible for turning off their own computers and lights at the end of the day instead of leaving it up to custodians.

Meier had plenty of company in his attempts to help the city power down. Alaska Electric Light and Power had already produced handouts and informational displays for Earth Day asking customers to reduce their power usage by ten percent, but these were quickly repurposed for the energy crisis. The city sent mailers listing energy conservation steps and urging residents to use less water. “The mayor and others from the business community walked the downtown area to encourage businesses to reduce their usage,” recalls Wood. A local nonprofit organized volunteers to help people make energy-efficient upgrades, like swapping incandescent bulbs for CFLs. Meier’s visit inspired the creation of a community campaign and a matching Web site called “Juneau Unplugged” that provided information about how to save energy and where those struggling with their power bills could turn for financial help.

City officials also had to get the word out to the approximately half a million tourists expected to arrive in Juneau via cruise liner before the towers could be repaired, so they wouldn’t be alarmed by its darkened shops and take their spending money elsewhere. Cruise lines were asked to explain the situation to their passengers, and shopkeepers placed placards in their windows explaining that they were conserving electricity.

The best information campaigns, says Meier, mix facts with humor, which is why he encouraged Juneau’s officials to study California’s tongue-in-cheek “Flex Your Power” TV ads. (Remember the one with a flirty octogenarian couple suggesting that they go skinnydipping instead of using the air conditioning, or one advising parents to let their energy-hog teenagers sleep in all day?) The trick was to make conservation the norm, says Meier, so that people would good-naturedly hassle anyone who wasn’t doing their part. It worked, says Wood. “I’m sure there wasn’t a work site coffee room where the conversation didn’t center on the energy situation and on what individuals were doing to cut their energy use. Energy conservation was ‘the thing to do.’ There was also a sense of peer pressure—‘My neighbors don’t have their lights on, so I can’t turn mine on yet.’”

But residents also needed to be reassured that the crisis wouldn’t last forever. In advising the utility, Meier recalls, “I said that one thing you have to do is make sure that the customers, the citizens of Juneau, know how hard you are striving to fix the problem—you need to create on your Web site a day-by-day description of what tasks are you working on, what is the status of the repairs, so that people can see that they’re saving for some reason, there’s an end in sight.”

The utility took this task very seriously. “Some customers took extraordinary measures to reduce their energy use, and knowing that progress was being made was like getting a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel,” recalls Wood. “Our generation engineer recorded consistent daily updates. These were provided to all the media outlets, and were aired on all local radio stations.” Updates were also posted on the company’s Web site.

And it worked. Within weeks, energy usage in Juneau dropped a dramatic thirty percent. Even better, none of that savings rate is due to seasonal fluctuations in power use—that thirty percent represents pure conservation, says Wood. Remember, only a few days before the avalanche the power company had hoping residents could be persuaded to save a mere ten percent. That thirty percent reduction sounds even more impressive when you compare it to the savings realized during other recent—albeit longer-term—power shortages. As Meier points out in his book, California’s 2001 energy crisis produced about a fourteen percent electricity savings rate over the course of nine months. During Brazil’s 2001 power shortage, during which the government rationed electricity and levied penalties for people who failed to reduce their usage, the energy savings was around twenty percent over ten months.

Many Juneau customers had dreaded receiving the “big bill”—the first power bill after the avalanche reflecting the new electricity rates. But the conservation effort, and the fact that repairs to the transmission towers finished ahead of schedule in early June, eased some of their pain. “As customers received the ‘big bill’ following their conservation efforts, most were relieved by the dollar amount compared with what they feared their bill could be when the news first broke,” says Wood. “Customers claimed bragging rights given the amount of conservation they attained. One young woman told me she was so proud of her $300 bill, she put it on the refrigerator!”

After the transmission towers were fixed, Juneau’s electricity use began to gradually creep back upwards but has not yet returned to former levels. “As of the end of September, overall usage was still down by about ten percent,” says Wood. “This reduction is basically the same for residential, small and large commercial and government customer classes. We expect that some reduction will be permanent, given removal of old refrigerators and freezers, replacement of incandescent lights with CFLs and a change in the way customers think about energy and resulting changes in habits.”

Indeed, agrees Meier, the city will probably benefit from some conservation inertia. “Once you turn down the thermostat on your water heater you probably don’t go and turn it up again unless there is a problem,” he says. ”You don’t unscrew a compact fluorescent light unless it’s really a nuisance.” As he points out, a ten percent reduction in a city’s power usage is a tremendous feat, one that would be very difficult to accomplish by a campaign alone, without an impending crisis to motivate the population.

The Juneau avalanche illustrates a fate that could easily befall Northern California—for instance, an earthquake that knocks the Diablo Canyon power plant or another nearby generator offline. But the bigger lesson is very simple: we could all live with less. Why wait for the next disaster to save electricity in a hurry when we could start now?

Comments are closed.