My turn: You don't have to have peed in the Yukon to be a real Alaskan

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2008

O ld Sourdoughs once had a list of things Cheechakos needed to have accomplished in order to call themselves real Alaskans. Today, modern newcomers to the state have other things they can do to pass the test. One of the most important things they can do is pay for the high cost of energy rural Alaskans have been paying for years. To this I say you're a real Alaskan if you've paid over 25 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Wednesday morning's avalanche in Port Snettisham took out Juneau's main source of inexpensive hydroelectric power and has overnight turned Juneau into a rural community. News reports indicate residents will be paying more than 50 cents per kilowatt-hour for three to four months. Last month's electric bill for me was about $100; at 50 cents per kilowatt-hour my bill for May will be $500. This is nothing short of a disaster and should be declared one. To all Cheechakos who call Juneau their home, you can check this one off your list.

Fortunately there are many things you can do, if you can afford to, to reduce your electrical consumption. Replacing your light bulbs with compact fluorescents can save a lot of electricity when a whole community changes over.

While a major blow to our community, this situation could be a really interesting social experiment. As residents strive to reduce our energy we are forced to make changes that the rest of the United States will have to make at some point in the near future as local utilities are unable to meet ever growing electrical demands. It is the moral obligation, of those who can afford it, to become as energy efficient as possible, thereby lessening the electrical load and reducing the amount of fossil fuels consumed.

At a recent forum on energy at the University of Alaska Southeast, one of the presenters mentioned that new plug-in electric hybrid vehicles with high miles-per-gallon will cripple local electric utilities by creating increased electrical loads and eating up hydro reserves. This defeats the purpose of buying such a vehicle since it transfers the burden from burning fossil fuels for transportation to one for electrical generation.

Unfortunately, Juneau's energy problem is a perfect storm scenario. Increasing electrical loads coupled with low reservoir levels and all-time high costs for diesel has led us to this. If all of Southeast Alaska's proposed electrical inter-ties were in place Juneau might be in a different situation. Unfortunately there are many Cheechakos in the state who have not shared this vision, which has kept communities like Angoon, Tenakee Springs and others independent from the electrical grid and dependent on increasingly expensive diesel power.

Southeast Alaska has always been a place of booms and busts. First it was the sea otter trade, then mining, fishing, timber, tourism, and now energy. There are many opportunities for the development of hydro, tidal, wind, and even geothermal energy within Southeast Alaska, yet because of roadblocks enacted by numerous factions, today we are facing the cold bitter reality of 50 cent-per-kilowatt-hour electricity. Energy conservation in the home, and increased efforts to develop Southeast Alaska's renewable energy opportunities, and connecting it all with electrical inter-ties, is needed now.

Since time immemorial, the local inhabitants of Southeast Alaska, the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimpsian peoples have managed to live here without electricity and acclimated to the surroundings. Another item on the modern Cheechako "to do list" is to take a cold dip in the local waters. Today this is known as the polar bear plunge. Traditionally, Tlingit warriors did this to strengthen their minds, bodies and souls. A good friend of mine who is a modern day Tlingit warrior does this daily when he showers without the aid of a hot water heater.

In conclusion, to all of Juneau's Cheechakos, welcome to Alaska and be thankful this scenario didn't occur in the dark of winter when our electrical needs are greater. Be mindful of this time when making decisions on future energy projects, which aim to get Southeast Alaska's rural communities off of diesel electric generators.

• Nathan Soboleff and his family live in Juneau.

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