With low rates back, conservation slackens

AEL&P spokesman says energy use still lower than in 2007

Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Juneau is still conserving electricity compared to last year. But in the month the city spent back on lower rates, usage crept up once again.

"Energy use in 2008 is trending upward at a relatively constant slope," wrote Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. spokesman Scott Willis in an e-mail.

Last week, Juneau used about 13 percent less electricity than in the same week last year, according to numbers provided by Willis. Conservation persists despite this year's cooler temperatures, which ordinarily tend to correlate with higher electricity use.

In the weeks before the April 16 avalanche, Juneau was using about 2 to 3 percent more electricity than during the same time in 2007. That trend might have been expected to continue - until avalanches destroyed the lines from the Snettisham hydroelectric power plant and forced the city to rely on more expensive diesel. At the height of Juneau's enthusiasm for conservation, in May, residents and businesses made national news by conserving electricity by more than 30 percent compared to the year before.

Anecdotally, Juneau Home Depot manager Troy Wolfinbarger painted a similar picture. After the avalanches, he couldn't keep compact fluorescent light bulbs in stock, as pallet after pallet sold out. Now, he said, they're still selling more than they were before the avalanches, but just slightly more. Gas-fueled major appliances such as dryers and stoves, which also gained sudden popularity after the avalanches, are also still selling a bit more, he said.

"I can see there is still some consciousness out there about energy conservation, but it's nothing like it was," he said.

Was the conservation a temporary blip in our usual consumption habits? Could it portend greater future energy conservation?

"I think some of it still may be behavioral. I think people may have found that they can do just fine without certain things," said Willis, noting that lights were still dim at various offices around town, and that he himself had realized he could turn his boiler off.

The focus on conservation for many may shift back to petroleum products, as gasoline and heating oil prices rise - and the latter is once again more expensive than electricity.

"What I'm hearing from friends and family is the inclination to go buy plug-in heaters because oil is so expensive," said Sally Schlicting, a member of the city Sustainability Commission.

But people can't just switch to a new energy source, she added.

"You've got to insulate your home and reduce your energy consumption," she said.

Responding to news of the upward trend, Bill Leighty, an energy analyst and former member of the city Energy Advisory Committee, said people shouldn't be surprised by it.

"People are sick and tired of not being able to use their electric dryers," he said.

He maintained that Juneau could have done more - and could still do more - to retrain itself to consume less energy.

That would have required, for example, seeing a shockingly high bill very early in the crisis; conducting home energy audits on a mass scale to find and fix where energy is wasted; and installing smart meters in houses to show people directly the effects of turning on appliances.

"If you're training a dog, you need to give the dog rapid, immediate feedback to reinforce or discourage behavior. We're just smart dogs, in this case," Leighty said.

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

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