Electric Avalanche

An avalanche that severed the main electric line into Juneau, Alaska has given researchers a unique look at how high electricity prices can cause long-lasting changes in how people use energy.

The April, 2008 slide cut power lines that connect the Alaskan city of about 30,000 to its main power source, two hydroelectric dams about 40 miles away. Diesel generators immediately kicked in to replace the lost electrons. But the new power was pricey, costing some 500% more than usual. It was “an unprecedented electricity price shock,” report Wayne Leighty of the University of California, Davis, and Alan Meier of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Energy Policy. And when the power company estimated it could take three months to repair the lines, residents braced for a very expensive Spring.

Within just days, however, they had managed to cut electricity demand by an astounding 25% without seriously disrupting city life. It was “the quickest and greatest reduction in electricity consumption that has ever occurred in the absence of blackouts” and “an extreme example of change,” Leighty and Meier write.

To understand how Juneau achieved those savings, nine months after the disaster the two researchers used an online questionnaire to survey residents. Overall, 539 people replied, with 424 answering all the questions. Although their sample was “not statistically representative,” it was big enough to reveal some noticeable trends. Nearly 80%, for instance, reported that they took their first action to conserve power within one day of the avalanche. And many were aware of the “Juneau Unplugged” campaign the city started to encourage conservation and track daily energy use.

On average, respondents reported taking about 10 actions to reduce power use, including installing power-saving light bulbs, turning off lights, switching to wood heat, and hanging out clothes to dry. Indeed, “local stores reported selling out of Compact Fluorescent light bulbs and clothes line as laundry could be seen line-drying around the town,” the authors write.

Notably, however, even after the cheap hydropower came back online 45 days after the avalanche (earlier than expected), many residents continued many of their newfound energy-saving practices. As a result, after the crisis eased, Juneau’s power use was still about 8% lower than it had been before the disaster. “Behaviors learned during the ‘crisis’ became new habits,” the authors note. “Many of these electricity-saving behaviors would not have been acceptable for trial in normal circumstances.”

“The event jolted the citizens into a higher awareness of their electricity use, leading to a combination of heightened vigilance, acceptance of certain types of inconvenience or discomfort, and modest investments in energy-saving products,” the authors conclude. But it shows that “large electricity savings are possible with the right combination of conditions, incentives, and strategies.” David Malakoff | April 6, 2011


Source: Leighty, W., & Meier, A. (2011). Accelerated electricity conservation in Juneau, Alaska: A study of household activities that reduced demand 25%. Energy Policy, 39 (5), 2299-2309 DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2011.01.041

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