While the green movement continues to gain momentum, becoming hipper by the day, energy conservation, with its monastic overtones, remains a tougher sell. So far being green hasn't meant a break from American consumer culture; in fact cool new green products and building materials continue to flood the market. Most of the popular environmentally-friendly behaviors tend to be centered around replacing one thing for another—eschewing plastic bags in favor of canvas, buying sustainable bamboo flooring instead of hardwood, or switching to wine in a box instead of in a bottle—rather than cutting back or going without completely.
And unlike its enormously popular relative recycling, which is hands-on, conservation is a rather dull exercise in which the rewards are implied rather than seen. For instance, conserving a few gallons of water or a few kilowatts of electricity may save a few cents on your bill, but your overall contribution to the planet is harder to measure or see. Though many people talk about conservation, being motivated to actually cut back or change habits can be difficult.
Peer pressure and the hip factor don't seem to be enough to get anyone to conserve, so it seems that financial constraints and scarcity might be the best—and only!—motivators in getting people to use less resources. For instance, despite months of high gas prices, the Boston Globe reported in February 2008 that people were only recently beginning to drive less. Average daily gasoline consumption in the U.S. decreased two-tenths of a percent from the previous year, the article reported, a small but significant amount, especially since the figures for the year before had shown a 2.5% increase in consumption.
In my town, Juneau, Alaska, we recently had a stark first-hand experience with imposed conservation. An avalanche wiped out a huge swath of the transmission lines that run our power into town from the hydroelectric dam south of Juneau. This forced our local power utility, Alaska Electric Light & Power (AEL&P) to replace cheap hydropower with expensive diesel fuel. This switch brought us estimated rate hikes of 500% until repairs were completed, estimated to be three months or more, and forced us into a period of intense energy conservation. Because it was imposed, not freely chosen, it was likely a situation more closely aligned with the eventual reality of resource conservation on a larger scale.
Juneau is a small city with a liberal downtown population, and many residents pride themselves on being environmentally friendly. But, like most, we are reluctant to make choices that limit personal freedom. In my family, our sins are predictable. We often buy organic produce but rarely check to see how many miles the item has traveled to reach our hands. And when it comes to energy consumption, we are careless; up until a few months ago, I didn't think twice about leaving the lights or computer on overnight, or about running the dryer with only one or two items in it. I never felt compelled to conserve electricity, and I don't think I was the only one.
A couple factors encouraged this mindset. First, Juneau sees 222 days of rain a year on average, and the temperature hovers around 41 degrees for what feels like ten months of the year. So even in the warmer months you can feel cold and isolated, and that mental chill can easily drive you to turn up the heat even when you’re not physically cold.
Second, electricity in Juneau has always been cheap, thanks to the abundance of water (at least all that rain is good for something!). Though the cost of living in Juneau is through the roof—a hamburger can cost upward of $10—electricity has always been one thing locals could count on to be affordable. And since water is a clean and renewable resource, I think many Juneau residents were a bit complacent.
The avalanche on April 16 and consequent switch to diesel changed all that, sending us scurrying for our light switches, power strips, and water heaters. It was estimated that we would need about 100,000 gallons of diesel a day to power the city, at a daily cost of almost $400,000. Residential rates were raised 447%, down from the 500% first anticipated. For my family of four that meant our monthly bill would be over $600.
As might be expected, the city went nuts. People were outraged that a natural disaster could have such a direct and disastrous effect on their pocketbooks, and furious at AEL&P for building the towers on such a steep slope. Already stretched to the limit, many residents indicated that they simply couldn't pay. Dire predictions were made about people being forced to leave town, businesses closing, and prices rising on everything from bagels to flowers.
Though most of these things never came to pass, the anger and fear generated by the crisis helped fuel residents' determination to conserve. And conserve we did. By the first week of switching over to diesel, the city’s energy use was down 30%, and going down. According to the local paper, the Juneau Empire, our usage before the avalanche was 984 megawatt-hours per day, and six weeks later it was 585, a decrease of 41%. Though people didn't like it, they managed to find ways to avoid using electricity.
Typical conservation measures involved unplugging everything that wasn't in use, using appliances only when necessary, and switching on fewer lights. Luckily, the avalanche occurred at a time of year when the days were getting longer—about 17 hours of daylight and counting.
At our house, changes were small but consistent: We took shorter showers, watched less TV, ate dinner by candlelight, cooked on the grill whenever possible, used the clothes dryer sporadically, and did the dishes by hand. Most of our neighbors did the same.
Conservation efforts were also very noticeable in the businesses around town. The grocery stores powered down, shutting off lights in the beverage coolers and other unnecessary places, and at the mall many of the corridor lights were out. At the airport, the escalator (there is only one) was shut off, as was the huge digital clock that displays time and temperature downtown. The sauna at the pool was closed. And, in a much-repeated detail, clothespins, previously left languishing in the dust on store shelves, were snapped up so quickly that they were completely sold out at every store in town within the week.
Like most things, the dread of having to cut back was far worse than the reality. And, frankly, it wasn't that hard.
On June 1 we learned that repairs on the towers had been completed way ahead of schedule and that AEL&P had switched back to hydropower. The electric company reported that because Juneau had conserved energy so efficiently, they had had to use much less diesel than they expected—less than $9 million worth of diesel rather than the $25 million they had estimated, according to the Juneau Empire. At my house the dreaded bill finally arrived and turned out to be only $312, meaning that our modest conservation efforts saved us around $300.
It remains to be seen whether or not energy consumption will return to its pre-avalanche levels, now that hydropower is back. Because Juneau's energy supply comes from an abundant resource, it is much easier to justify wasting it. However, our brief run-in with diesel-powered energy has shown that conservation doesn't have to translate into hardship or even inconvenience. It is just a good practice to not waste resources, even those that seem to be plentiful. The hopeful part of this experience for me was watching how quickly habits could be changed. The fact that the motivating factor was financial, rather than philosophical doesn't make it any less encouraging. In fact, though it may be cynical, I think it is a much more solid way to begin.