Juneau, Alaska's capital city, is a study in how to green a community in record time. The city has cut down on electricity use by 30 percent since mid April — they've done it by dimming lights in public places, turning down the thermostat in community convention centers, and shutting off extra elevators in libraries. Little kids brag about saving power at home, and neighbors compare the efficiencies of their hot water heaters.
But the residents of Juneau aren't doing it because they feel some sudden crisis of conscience brought on by a warming climate. They're doing it because they have to.
On April 16, a massive avalanche obliterated several transmission towers that delivered over 80 percent of the city’s power from a hydroelectric dam located 40 miles south of Juneau. Since then, power costs have risen 400 percent, crippling local homeowners and businesses. Government assistance has stalled and repairs won't happen until June at the earliest, so the community has banded together to consume less electricity and find ways to become energy efficient as quickly as possible. That can often be a tall order in the uncooperative climes of coastal Alaska.
With the first bills based on the increased rate scheduled to be sent out this week, fear is in the air. So is the laundry. Dryers eat up watts, and local stores ran out of clothespins because so many people started hanging their laundry outside. Never mind that it rains 220 days of the year and rarely gets truly warm here amid the fjords and forests of the Inside Passage.
“It takes about two days to get them dry,” Linda Augustine, 66, an elementary school teacher, said as she used plastic clothes hangers to dry blue jeans and T-shirts under the awning on the back porch of her mobile home. “And I don’t iron my clothes now. You massage them to get the wrinkles out while they’re still on the hanger.”
Inadvertently, Juneau has become something of a model for how other cities could green themselves in rapid fashion. Several environmental start-ups have contacted the town's mayor to come and help shape the city as a banner environmental community, and environmental activists praise Juneau's balance of self-discipline and embrace of sustainable tech.
Only time will tell if Juneau keeps up the green after the transformers are fixed. But it remains a testament to how all our communities could get green fast — if only Mother Nature were to put a gun (or an avalanche) to our heads.
— Ted Alvarez