We seem to learn hard lessons about energy scarcity only when something big and unexpected happens. That was definitely the case this summer in Juneau, Alaska, when avalanches suddenly destroyed our power supply and threw our community headlong into an experiment in conservation.
The avalanches, released 40 miles south of Juneau on April 16, were massive even by Alaskan standards. They roared thousands of feet down, tossing car-sized boulders and snapping centuries-old spruce trees before they plunged into the ocean.
Ordinarily, Juneau's 30,000 residents would have known nothing about the slides, which occurred in remote Port Snettisham. However, Snettisham is home to a hydroelectric plant that provides about 80 percent of Juneau's power. When the speeding snow reduced five utility towers to twisted metal, all the lights in town went out.
Juneau residents are accustomed to disruptions in electricity: Eagles fly into power lines, downed trees and moving earth are all-too-common events. We're used to diesel generators kicking on while crews make repairs. But losing five utility towers at once was unprecedented, and we were told that simply digging them out would take weeks, while doing the major repairs would take months. In that long meantime, we'd have to burn 80,000 gallons of diesel daily just to keep the lights on. Even worse: The utility announced a 500 percent rate increase.
Suddenly, a family could expect an electric bill higher than their mortgage.
In April, snow still mixes with Juneau's copious rainfall and nights are cold. Even so, energy conservation became a sensation. The big-box stores turned off half their lights. The federal building shut down one of four elevators. The library closed on Tuesdays. Hardware stores saw a rush on clothespins and energy-efficient bulbs.
Letters to the editor scolded the city about office lights burning over the weekend and streetlights illuminated after dawn. The paper published tips for reducing energy use. Meanwhile, thermostats and water heaters went down a few degrees in thousands of households.
For a global-warming alarmist like me, the daily talk of conservation was wonderful and long overdue. And to the surprise of many, all these simple actions made a huge difference. In two weeks' time, Juneau reduced its energy consumption by a third. Soon, we were flirting with decreases of over 40 percent. Faced with skyrocketing energy prices, a city as resistant to energy conservation as any had dramatically cut its energy use.
No doubt, there were inconveniences. But the sky did not fall. The Chinese didn't take over; iPods and cell phones still got charged. We became accustomed to dimmer lighting in stores and neon-free storefronts. Some, faced with a longer wait at the elevator, took the stairs. Quickly, we learned a key lesson in conservation: Every day offers new ways to save energy. One columnist even called conservation "fun."
But ever since Jimmy Carter was maligned 30 years ago for wearing a sweater in the White House to promote conservation, Americans have reacted coolly to the idea of trimming energy use. More recently, Dick Cheney claimed conservation could contribute little toward solving America's energy problems. And for the last eight years, our president has rejected conservation as serious energy policy.
The words of oilmen aside, in Alaska's capital city we unequivocally showed that conservation works. We demonstrated that it's the cheapest, most readily available source of new energy. And it's 100 percent terror-free, home-grown and climate-safe.
But now it's October, with snow again mixing with the rain. Since our hydropower was restored four months ago, energy use gradually climbed back toward previous levels -- though the initial investment in new bulbs and the like still accounts for lower-than-average use.
So we also provided another lesson about conservation: It requires strong economic incentives to keep it going.
That presents us with a choice. We can wait for a crisis, such as more massive storms related to climate change or another spike in gas prices. Or we can elect leaders who will create the incentives for conservation. And there are other ways to help: We could encourage rebates for renewables, genuine investment in green technology, even the four-day work weeks recently started in Utah and Washington.
As we learned in Juneau, there's a new idea every day. Together, they provide more oil than we'd ever drill from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, our greatest wilderness. And it would save Americans millions of dollars.
Drilling proponents cynically assume Americans lack the ingenuity to think our way out of our energy problems. But I know different. If conservation can work in Alaska, it can work anywhere.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works as a wilderness ranger in Alaska and spends winters in Whitefish, Montana.