My turn: Passing the baton to Juneau Commission on Sustainability

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2007

A recent city of Juneau resolution created the Juneau Commission on Sustainability and repealed a resolution that gave life to the Juneau Energy Advisory Committee. The newly established commission met for six hours recently to continue its important work of establishing goals and strategies. Commissioners are to be applauded for their hard work and commitment to address difficult and complex issues.

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New perspectives and fresh energy are needed. As a former member of the energy committee, and as a participant in Juneau's sustainable development committee 10 years ago, I sense that some historical insights and institutional knowledge could be of some benefit.

At the recent meeting, another former energy committee member, Bill Leighty, presented a cautionary note about the overall energy picture in Juneau. Though hydropower is the most advantageous local, renewable, clean energy resource, Bill rightly notes that Juneau's current energy needs are mostly fueled by imported fossil fuels, which are unstable and limited resources linked to global warming.

Former Deputy Mayor Jim Powell spoke to the commission about potential pitfalls of using "sustainability indicators," which comprise a focus of his current doctoral work, and ways to avoid such pitfalls. He advocated a "systems approach" and recommended a book, "Collapse," by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond. The commission might wish to use Diamond's method for measuring sustainability of today's societies, based on insight gained from studying civilizations that have collapsed.

Alaska Electric Light & Power presented a history of Juneau's federally subsidized Snettisham hydropower project, including Long and Crater Lakes, and discussed current and future development.

The history of Juneau's hydropower system during the past 30 years holds valuable lessons regarding sustainability.

When Long Lake was developed, Juneau had no electrically heated homes, and limited electrically heated hot water. With cheap hydropower made available, with minimal thermal building codes in place, and with an electric rate structure providing incentives for all-electric homes, the expanding use of electricity in Juneau pushed Long Lake to full capacity, necessitating the expensive addition of Crater Lake sooner than planned. The same thing happened with Crater Lake.

Among other efforts, our energy committee tried to address this problem by advising adoption of an integrated resource planning approach, modeled after successes in other states, which balances investment in energy conservation with investment in energy production. State Rep. Kay Brown of Anchorage introduced legislation to mandate this approach statewide. The political will was insufficient and business interests proved too powerful. The energy committee lost that battle. Consequently, Crater Lake was pushed toward full utilization long before what had been projected, leading to earlier than necessary development of Lake Dorothy.

Because of these historical factors, the housing infrastructure in Juneau is not energy efficient today, not sustainable.

The quality of life that Juneau residents have come to expect could be enjoyed with far less energy. Sustainable, clean hydropower could become a much larger fraction of overall energy used, if developed wisely within a sustainability planning approach. The new commission has been born during an especially advantageous historical moment, with heightened awareness of energy security needs and climate change.

The lesson for the commissioners is to consider using a systems approach that is comprehensive, integrated and long term. It would help to establish a local-global connection, networking within the region and beyond. Here is a suggested process for the commission:

1. With broad community input, identify all critically necessary services and activities in Juneau, and those necessary for a carefully defined quality of life.

2. Determine sustainability of each service and activity.

3. Determine what needs to be done to establish sustainable practices for each service and activity.

4. Develop a sustainability plan and carefully define indicators that can be used to assess progress. Throughout the first three steps of this process, but especially at this point, collaborate regularly with Juneau Assembly members and city staff. Include a revision schedule within the plan.

5. Formally present the sustainability plan to the Assembly for official approval. Provide ongoing help with implementation and plan revisions.

A clearly defined process could help commissioners focus their efforts while keeping the big picture in mind and also succeeding at the mundane and pragmatic work that is necessary for success.

• Bob Woolf was a member of the Juneau Energy Advisory Committee and helped develop an energy chapter for Juneau's Comprehensive Plan. A retired teacher, he lives in Excursion Inlet near Glacier Bay. Contact him at

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