Growth will always outrun power supplies

Posted: Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Of all our modern conveniences, electricity may be the easiest to take for granted. It's right there at the flip of a switch. Throw in a steep price hike though, and it's no longer just the high voltage power lines buzzing. But while we react with angst to rate increases by AEL&P, let's also remember that the new power plant at Lake Dorothy was built to meet growth in consumer demands.

It wasn't a secret AEL&P was spending millions to build the plant. It's nave to think a drastic rate increase wasn't in the works, too. It's a fact of economic life that businesses, including utility providers, pass on such costs to consumers.

The proposed rate increase shouldn't have come as a surprise either. The Empire reported last fall rates would likely go up about two cents per kilowatt-hour to pay for the new plant. In fact, AEL&P predicted a similar rate increase back in July, 2008, right after they had repaired the transmission lines taken down by the avalanche that sent prices soaring for a few months.

That event is unforgettable. In dramatic fashion, we cut our power consumption by 30 percent. According to the New York Times, Juneau had instantly established "itself as a role model for how to go green, and fast."

Our conservation efforts may have been the talk of the nation, but we weren't the first to write such a story. Many experts attribute a similar spike in energy costs as the main driver behind the Pacific Northwest becoming a national leader in energy conservation.

Forty years ago, Washington State had the lowest electrical rates in the nation. Most of it was generated from renewable hydropower that seemed so stable it was a magnet for population and business growth. As demand grew, utility managers predicted it would outstrip supply. Since the area's major rivers were already dammed to the limit, the Washington Public Power Supply System sold a few billion dollars in bonds to build five nuclear power plants.

When construction costs soared more than five-fold, it forced electric rates to surge too, by as much as 300 percent. Energy conservation spurred by the rate increases and the rising oil prices of that era combined to drastically reduce demand. Only one plant was ever completed before WPPSS defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds.

Electric rates never returned to their pre 1980s lows. But eventually they stabilized, growth continued and energy consumption increased. However, Juneau hasn't had any appreciable population growth for 20 years. So what else contributed to the growing power demand here?

During the good economic times, consumer spending increases and retail business expansion usually follows. Since 1990, Carrs, Costco, K-Mart (now Wal-Mart) and Home Depot all opened huge stores here. Fred Meyer expanded theirs. Modern technology also put more energy-consuming electronics into most homes and businesses. And as if to put an exclamation point on how much merchandise we've bought, several new heated mini storage complexes were built for the stuff we can't fit in our homes.

All forms of growth add pressure to the available power supply. And although we've retained some of the conservation measures we learned two years ago, as soon as electric rates returned to their pre-avalanche level, we also resumed some of our less thoughtful uses of electricity.

Our thirst for energy is never ending. The problem is the easy sources have all been tapped. Now as oil supplies decline and prices rise, there is renewed interest in nuclear power. But the BP fiasco off the coast of Louisiana should be a warning that no technology is immune from failure. There isn't a place in the nation that can afford a nuclear power plant disaster.

America needs to start developing reliable technologies to harvest wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy. But even the most innovative uses of renewable resources won't solve our energy problems. We can expect demand to rise in a nation projected to add 50 million people to its population over the next quarter century.

So it seems we also need to start devising ways to live with less, because the current trends are unsustainable. And demanding more has a relationship with greed whether its profit, material possessions, or the energy to sustain growth.

• Rich Moniak is a freelance writer living in Juneau.

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