Empire editorial: Crisis lesson: Communities should unite

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2008

It's too soon to say Juneau's energy crisis is over, but Alaska Electric Light & Power Co.'s announcement late last week that transmission line repair work will be completed in a matter of days came as welcome news.

Juneau experienced a wrenching month and a half of uncertainty following the April 16 avalanches that cut the city off from its main source of cheap hydroelectricity and forced the utility to raise rates by 447 percent to cover the cost of expensive diesel fuel.

When the avalanches struck, no one knew how long this crisis was going to last or how painful the economic hit would be. The prospect of paying extremely high rates for up to three months had many people and businesses doubting their ability to weather the crisis.

But rather than panic, our community kept cool and started to conserve electricity. People began turning to conservation Web sites and online forums, as well as their neighbors, for tips on how to cut back on energy use. Armed with this information, people switched off lights, turned down the heat, lowered the temperature of water heaters, and dried their clothes on racks and clotheslines.

The result: The community cut its energy consumption by an unprecedented 30 percent.

When the crisis began, our community leaders sought assistance from the state and federal governments. When aid wasn't forthcoming, again, rather than panic, our leaders quickly realized that we alone had to pull ourselves out of this crisis.

The city partnered with the United Way of Southeast and Catholic Community Services to form Juneau Unplugged, a program that provides grants for lower income households. The program was recently expanded to households earning as much as 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

The city also charged the Juneau Economic Development Council with providing low-interest loans to needy small businesses. Along with federal aid from the Small Business Administration, these loans are helping local businesses weather the financial storm.

And finally, Juneau started catching some breaks. After the avalanches, the weather warmed up and remained relatively clear, which undoubtedly helped construction crews at the repair site. The warmer weather also helped residents cut back on their electric heat.

But the biggest break of all was that the concrete foundations of the destroyed transmission towers survived. If the foundations had been damaged, the repair work would easily have lasted into July. Instead, we're looking to be back on hydroelectricity in a few days. And instead of the 54-cent per kilowatt-hour rate we paid last month, the new rate to be issued June 16 will be around 18 cents per kWh - and maybe even lower.

It will undoubtedly take some time before we'll be able to assess the true impact of the April 16 avalanches. Hopefully, our conservation habits remain ingrained long after hydro power is restored.

We also hope this ordeal has helped policymakers realize the need for a statewide energy policy, for many communities throughout the state are seeing their rates skyrocket. Just as Juneau came together as a community to meet this challenge, the many communities of Alaska need to join for the benefit of all.

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