June 18, 2008
Contact: Allan Chen, 486-4210
When an avalanche damaged a major electrical power line near Juneau, Alaska, on April 16, life abruptly changed for the town's 30,000 inhabitants. The line had carried inexpensive hydroelectric power that supplied 85 percent of the Alaskan state capital's electricity needs.
The line runs along the foot of a mountain that is often covered in snow in the winter and the local power utility, the Alaska Electric Light and Power company, had long been aware of its vulnerability. A bank of diesel-powered generators was waiting to step in during the emergency.
However, a big problem still remained for the town's inhabitants: with the price of diesel fuel at historic highs, everyone was going to see their monthly electricity bill jump by as much as five times.
In a state where the cost of living is already considerably higher than it is in the lower 48 states, the unexpected jump in cost was going to be a major burden to all, especially to lower income townspeople, who were already living close to the financial edge. Finding rapid ways to reduce electricity use suddenly became just about everyone's top priority.
How do you save electricity in a hurry? One way to do it is to call in Berkeley Lab scientist Alan Meier, who wrote the book Saving Electricity in a Hurry while on leave to the International Energy Agency.
"Blackouts are normally the result of imbalances in electricity supply and demand," says Meier. "A brief blackout is mostly an inconvenience. But persistent shortfalls -- those lasting days, weeks, or months -- can cause economic disruption and danger to human life in our technology-rich societies. Our study showed that countries can quickly reduce electricity consumption without harming the economy as much as blackouts or unplanned curtailments. The strategies are diverse, unique and often surprisingly cheap. They include mass media campaigns -- where a good joke can save a megawatt -- improvements in equipment efficiency, and quickly adjusting electricity prices."
Meier, who is now back at Berkeley Lab conducting research in a variety of energy-efficiency-related subjects, also teaches classes on energy efficiency at the University of California, Davis. One of his former students was from Juneau and made the connection between Juneau's needs and Meier's expertise.
Shortly after the avalanche, Juneauites, their utility, and state and city officials began searching for quick ways to reduce the anticipated jump in electricity bills. The Alaska Congressional delegation sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman requesting that the Department of Energy send Meier to Juneau as soon as possible to provide technical advice on quickly reducing electricity use.
With funding from the Department of Energy's Technical Assistance Program, Meier flew to Juneau on Monday, April 28 and spent two and a half packed days meeting with government officials, visiting residences and local businesses to do quick energy audits, and giving interviews to local radio and televisions stations and newspapers with his advice on how to save energy in a hurry. He was hosted by the Juneau Economic Development Council, a non-profit organization that promotes business development in the city.
Meier met with Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho several times, and with City Manager Rod Swope, former mayor Bill Overstreet, building managers of the city of Juneau, Public Works, Park and Recreations Department, representatives of the University of Alaska Southeast including John Pugh, and the Southeast Conference's Percy Frisby; the Juneau School District superintendent Peggy Cowan, and Energy Manager Joyce Kitka, and managers from local businesses, from mom and pop stores to Wal-Mart. He did quick energy audits of the city's low-income housing, as well as audits of local businesses like the Alaska Brewing Company, the local newspaper the Juneau Empire, and a fishery.
"There were several areas of activity during my visit," says Meier. "One was to help Juneau prepare a campaign to urge the people of the town that it was their civic duty to save energy -- that saving energy is good citizenship. I urged the town's leaders to develop a simple common message and a campaign behind it. The leadership came up with the 'Juneau Unplugged' campaign, complete with graphic design, web pages, and posters."
Meier offered quick, easily implemented measures that residents, businesses, and city government could do. His recommendations included such simple ones as replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps, turning down thermostats, and unplugging appliances not in use. In addition, he cautioned Juneauites again raising the thermostats in their refrigerators and other measures that might cause more trouble than energy savings.
Knowing which appliances draw power while switched off is one of Meier's specialties, since he has led research on the standby power use of appliances and how to reduce it. Meier noted that California homes now have about forty devices constantly drawing power; homes in Juneau were no different.
Compact fluorescent lamps became so popular that city businesses temporarily ran out of them. Some townspeople had to await a new shipment in the weekly barge that brings supplies from Seattle.
Meier also made site-specific recommendations during his visits to various businesses and facilities. For example, Meier discovered widespread use of electrical space heating and water heating in city homes and apartments. This prompted a suggestion to set thermostats a few degrees lower, especially when homes and commercial buildings are unoccupied.
Effective communications with customers is a key to getting large populations to reduce energy use quickly. In meetings with officials of Alaska Electric Light and Power, Meier urged that their public campaign include regular progress reports about the city's progress in saving energy, as well as the progress of repairs to the downed power line. The public had to be able to see, every day, that their efforts were paying, that electricity use was decreasing every day. "You have to tell people what progress they are making, and you have to give them an endpoint," he says.
As a result of his recommendation, the utility posted two graphics on its website, one showing Juneau's total power use and one showing electricity use. Both showed declining use throughout the crisis, thanks to efforts of the inhabitants to save energy.
The utility's reports of repair progress, and anticipated repair completion also gave the inhabitants a definite goal to work towards, when the electricity crisis would be over. Repairs to the power line were completed ahead of schedule in early June.
Discussions with the utility and city leaders revealed that municipal electricity use accounted for a high percentage of the total, perhaps as much as 20 to 30 percent. The causes: the Juneau airport, and the city's sewage treatment and water pumping plants. This led to the unexpected conclusion that saving electricity in part meant saving water -- the less water, the lower the load on sewage and water plants. Meier urged the citizens to save electricity by cutting unnecessary water use, even though they would not see any reduction in their own electricity bills.
Meanwhile, airport personnel switched off runway lights when there were no planes at or near the airport. The city's government began its own conservation program in city buildings and facilities. "Another thing we had to do," Meier says, "was to figure out how to communicate energy savings to the city's temporary population of tourists."
In the summertime Juneau swells substantially, thanks to numerous visits by cruise ships whose passengers are hoping for a look at the famed Mendenhall Glacier and other natural wonders. Juneau is the gateway city to Glacier National Park, and the cruise industry brings up to a million visitors a year to Juneau, mostly in summer. This fact prompted cards and signs telling visitors that darkened stores were saving electricity by switching off lights and asking the visitors to help Juneau conserve.
Meier's visit was covered by Juneau's daily paper, the Juneau Empire, and television stations KJUD, KATH, and KTOO. Several radio stations interviewed him. When he appeared on a call-in interview show on April 30, on KINY radio, the station was deluged with calls.
His brief visit of less than three days contributed to a substantial change. "Even before I arrived," he says, "Juneau had already reduced its electricity use by about 20 percent. Now its electricity use is down 40 percent compared with before the avalanche." Says Meier, "This is the largest saving in electricity use that I have ever seen."
Summing up his advice, he says, "We had to make it more than just socially acceptable to conserve energy -- we had to suggest that conservation was expected. We had to communicate the message that to be a good citizen you need to conserve energy." That the message got through is seen in many small ways throughout town, for example in the restaurants and other businesses whose signs proclaim "Our lights are off -- we're doing our part to save electricity."
By June 2, the power line to the hydroelectric dam had been restored, and everyone wondered if the city would go back to its old levels of power consumption. Time will tell, but Meier believes that consumption will not snap back all the way, both because of structural changes -- from switching to more efficient appliances and more energy-efficient equipment like compact fluorescent lamps -- and possibly because of persistent changes in behavior as well, which could persist among those who want to make a habit of saving money on their electricity bills.
While the Juneau avalanche may seem an exceptional situation, Meier believes that other parts of the world could suffer similar crises that temporarily compromise an otherwise working electricity infrastructure -- including the state of California.
"Earthquakes in California could cause temporary shutdowns of some of the state's sources of electricity supply," he says. This would require state residents to save electricity quickly but temporarily until plants are up and running again. The city of Tokyo and countries like South Africa, Chile, China, and Norway are examples of other areas of the world where geography, supply constraints, earthquakes, extreme weather, and other types of natural hazards, as well as other factors have cause temporary disruptions in electricity supply.
For anyone living in a part of the world where the electricity supply may be constrained, we know a good book you can read.