My turn: Lessons learned from the avalanche

Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2008

There are many lessons in the recent avalanche and our dependence on expensive oil for electricity - the most important being the community can still pull together.

Soon after the crisis I repeatedly heard there would be little response other than requests for monetary assistance. But far more has been accomplished than welfare applications. From news reports, the first day on backup diesel we burned 88,000 gallons for generation. This recently fell off to about 55,000 gallons per day as people started to conserve. This is a tremendous response and confirms my convictions that conservationists are made when the consequences are out of pocket or there is way to make money from it.

But even more important, the crisis reinforces that an individual, a family, a community and certainly a government can make a difference. Some food for thought.

First, our crisis is just an everyday fact of life for those living in rural Alaska. Empathy comes a little easier when shaped by real life experiences, but our fellow citizens must be amused that we are requesting aid for rates that are similar to theirs. Well, that is not entirely true. Their rates are often subsidized by the Power Cost Equalization Program, which is not available to Juneau.

Nonetheless, many of Juneau citizens will be hit very hard - even if full conservation measures are in effect.

Empire columnist Gregg Erickson is correct that Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. should back-load the price hikes to ease the initial pain. It is usually easier to adjust when there is more time. Just remember back to when you started your career with little money and huge student loans. Well, many of us were given lots of time, and for the most part it worked. So it is heartening to see the mayor and the Juneau Assembly making no-interest loans to AEL&P to help the needy customers pay over time.

Higher electrical costs should come from one's discretionary income and not money needed to maintain a minimum standard of living. Many of us already max out our earnings, but lower wage earners and people on fixed incomes are the most susceptible and need our help.

Second, the crisis will allow us to explore other ways to conserve energy, reduce our carbon footprint and fight global warming. This weekend I noticed the shelves at many retail outlets for energy saving florescent light-bulbs were nearly empty. I also heard customers helping each other with tips and information. The cumulative effects of these new bulbs are great but they come with other tradeoffs. For example, the new bulbs have a mercury contamination risk when thrown away. The risk is certainly manageable but more public education is definitely needed.

I also see more hybrid cars on Egan Drive. However, just substituting electrical energy for gasoline may result in a smaller carbon foot print, but the savings in total energy is marginal. Perhaps it is time to rethink about mass transit in Juneau. During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I rode the same Metro system as I used back in the 1980s. It was still clean, efficient and cheap. If Washington and San Francisco can do it, why can't we?

Third, I have witnessed a fast and positive response by our citizens, AEL&P and the Assembly. Notwithstanding these efforts, I am a little dismayed at the rather harsh response in the blogs aimed Mayor Bruce Botelho and AEL&P. I do agree with the bloggers that better prevention planning and emergency preparedness is desirable. This could have happened in the dark of winter. But I also recognize the prompt and measured response by the mayor and the Assembly.

I also accept that AEL&P is a privately held utility and is motivated by profit, but not profiteering. AEL&P has given us decades of cheap power and at least one less eagle tree - sorry, I could not resist. The company is a good corporate citizen. And, let us not forget Hurricane Katrina. Given the choice of depending on Juneau or the feds during an emergency, I will pick my neighbors - especially if they are prepared and working together.

• Joe Mehrkens is a resident of Juneau.

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