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'This time, we know the drill'

Energy conservation in Juneau is automatic, residents say

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2009

As soon as news broke that Juneau was back on diesel fuel, residents switched into energy-conservation mode. And this time around, they panicked less.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"The first time was pretty emotional, but now we know the rates are definitely going to increase," said Josere Carrillo, an accountant. "It's not as emotional yet."

At least not until residents hear exactly how much the rates will rise, she added.

Last spring, avalanches wiped out the Snettisham transmission line. Juneau residents, facing sharply increased electricity rates, conserved by more than one-third from the previous year, becoming an example for the rest of the nation. As time went on conservation slackened, particularly with the recent cold snap.

Many of Carrillo's energy savings continued after the rates dropped back to normal last June; her family still hasn't gone back to using the dishwasher, she said. The hardest part is getting her four children, who don't sign the checks to the utility company, to mind the lights.

Juneau residents on the street Tuesday said that as soon as they heard about the Snettisham line, they knew what to do: cut down on the clothes dryer and the dishwasher. Turn the lights off in unused rooms.

"It's OK," said Ruth Cunningham, who is retired. "We're Alaskans. We can handle it."

But not everyone instantly acclimated to living in darkness, especially those who weren't living in Juneau last spring.

"We only had the Christmas tree lights," said Andrew Vidal, an Americorps volunteer for whom this is the first energy crisis.

Vidal's first reaction was panic, he said.

Some business owners also are worried. Shreeja Maskay, owner of Alaska Nepal, already had fluorescent light bulbs from the last energy crisis.

High energy costs would be a bad hit after disappointing Christmas sales, she said.

"No matter what, I like Juneau. It reminds me of home," said Maskay, originally from Nepal. "I just hope I'll stay here."

For those who regretted their energy bills last time, the most recent crisis is a second chance to conserve. Adam Gottschlich, a Copy Express employee, said his family's usage last spring was their lowest ever, yet it cost them $560 instead of the usual $130. This time he'd conserve "slightly," he said.

"I didn't conserve. I should have," said Gottschlich, who had unplugged some appliances.

Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. spokesman Scott Willis urged people to conserve, but not to go too far.

"There may be a great temptation to use oil or fuel heaters inappropriately in a closed room, or have open flames and things like that," Willis said. "People just really need to be cautious about what they do."

Attitudes toward AEL&P varied. Last spring, some suspected the company was mismanaging the situation or profiting unfairly, leading to protests at the capitol building. A proposed retroactive rate hike, for example, was canceled after people complained it would hurt those who hadn't known to conserve energy.

Were people suspicious this time around?

"Oh, heavens no," Cunningham said.

"I think they're doing the best they can," said Leo DeMeo, a Marine Exchange of Alaska employee who switched to using a hand-crank radio when he heard the news. "But I wouldn't want to be in their shoes."

Mike Wiley, co-owner of the Ben Franklin store, wondered how the latest disaster would change the utility company's plans for a long-term solution.

AEL&P hired a contractor this year to assess such solutions as concrete avalanche-deflecting barriers around the towers, submarine lines or moving the lines. The report is due this winter.

"They've got to do something," Wiley said. "They can't keep passing it on to the consumer."

Some people were outright angry. Lois Ward, a state worker, felt AEL&P could have done something to prevent the most recent tower damage.

Last time, she and others in her cooperative conserved, stringing clothesline in the back bedroom. They conserve energy as a matter of course, she said, and they'll go back to extreme conserving.

But she was angry that she had to do it. AEL&P's actions seemed negligent, she said.

"The energy company had a chance to build the fences," she said, referring to concrete barriers to deflect avalanches. "As far as I'm concerned, they should take the hit."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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For complete coverage of the Snettisham avalanches including tips on how to conserve energy, video reactions and links to local resources go online to juneauempire.com/powerline.



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