Reducing energy use is a quality of life issue

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2008

There was no small measure of irony in the timing of my last column (Please remember to leave the lights on). As my mini-manifesto on the economy of electric heat versus oil was rolling off the presses, snow was rolling off of the cliffs above Juneau's hydroelectric power lines, heralding a dramatic change in the way all Juneau residents view our usage of electricity.

In my family's case the "remedy" for the electricity crisis was to turn off our electric heaters - and any unnecessary lighting -and rely almost exclusively on our woodstove for heat. As a result, our electric usage dropped by over half. Had we not invested in the woodstove, there would have been little we could do to reduce our usage.

I mentioned last month that our electricity bill through this winter was half what we paid for oil and electricity the winter before, despite higher energy costs. I chronicled the laundry list of energy improvement projects we've completed or are contemplating for our home, and I mentioned the fact that these projects, taken together, add up to a sizeable investment.

I also stated that if we don't pay to reduce our energy requirements, we will continue to pay extra for the energy our home requires.

With this last statement in mind, it was with great dismay that I read the details of the Palin administration energy subsidy plan. In the Palin plan, a one-year subsidy of electricity rates would be coupled with a $1,200 "credit card" for every Alaska Permanent Fund dividend recipient to help Alaskans pay for energy expenditures.

To be sure, there are Alaskans who can truly benefit from the proposed energy plan, but that benefit will last for only 12 months. How will the Palin plan benefit anybody beyond its one-year time span? It doesn't.

In the meantime, the cost of oil continues to rise. I foresee tremendous pressure to extend any energy subsidies beyond the original one-year plan, and from what I've seen of our state Legislature in action, I cannot imagine any elected official standing in the way of creating a permanent energy subsidy.

I am against the Palin proposal for another reason: Lacking from this "plan" is any incentive to reduce energy consumption. On the contrary, subsidizing energy consumption can lead only to more consumption, resulting in even higher energy prices.

Of the roughly $10,000 I invested in energy related home improvement projects last year, the federal government reimbursed me to the tune of $400 on my tax return. The state of Alaska offered no such reimbursement.

The energy reduction projects I mentioned in last month's column saved us about $1,500 through the winter months. At that pace, our investment in energy upgrades will easily be recouped within seven years, less if the price of oil stays where it is, and every year after that the savings will add cash to my pocket.

I strongly believe in making a better future for my children. As such, I have no hesitation about investing in "quality of life" issues. Energy improvement renovations fall right into that category.

Unfortunately, most Alaskans lack the upfront capital to invest in energy reduction. Current spikes in the price of oil, and the resultant increases in all energy costs, further decrease the availability of funds for energy related renovations. In the absence of these renovations, all Alaskans will continue to pay more than they should have to for energy.

To their credit, the Alaska Legislature recently approved an expanded home energy rebate and weatherization program through the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. If such a program had been in place last year I might have gotten a sizeable rebate check. Instead, I'm contemplating how the expanded state program can accelerate the timetable for the next round of energy projects in my home.

The spike in global oil prices, as well as Juneau's temporary spike in electric rates, should serve as a wake-up call. How much will diesel cost the next time our hydroelectric power fails?

The era of cheap energy is over. Maintaining our current quality of life will only be possible by better utilizing the energy available to us. We owe it to our kids to succeed in the effort.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and long-term Juneau resident.

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