Earthquake bad, avalanche worse

Loveland Pass - a dangerous place for avalanchesEarthquakes are bad enough, but Juneau, Alaska’s recent experience makes me glad I don’t have to worry about avalanches. With their hydro power out of commission for three months, Juneau’s electrical rates jumped from $0.11/kWh to $0.50/kWh. That’s almost 5 times as much! Imagine having to spend 5 times your electrical bill in May as you did at the beginning of April. For me and Maggie, that means we’d be spending something like $500, almost as much as our rent!

Luckily, it’s spring, so people can start turning the heat down and cooking outside. Even so, it’s hard not to hear a little bit of panic when people ask for help cutting electrical usage. Could you reduce your electrical use to 20% of what it was last month in two weeks? I know I couldn’t. That doesn’t even being to consider the plight of businesses in the area. They might not be able to considerably reduce their use of electricity and still produce anything.

Diversity is important. When Hurricane Fran hit Raleigh when I was younger, we didn’t have electricity for weeks. However, we did have a gas range, which meant that we could heat water for quick showers, cook, and heat the kitchen pretty easily. If we’d depended entirely on electricity, it would have been much harder for us. We were also lucky in that the local univerisity (NCSU) has their own nuclear generator, so they didn’t lose power and were willing to share their hot water with us.

This is one of the reasons I really like alternative sources of power. Sure, you might not be able to get 100% of your electricity from a wind turbine or a small set of solar panels, but even a little bit of energy production would allow you to better weather these sorts of emergencies. A small turbine producing 20% of your max use of electricity would let you cut back to just the necessities if grid-based power becomes too expensive. Small, local energy production would also get you through brown-outs just fine.

Another interesting aspect to the story is that $0.50/kWh is what rural Alaskans already pay. Somehow, they’re able to make it work. Obviously, the sudden shocking change makes it difficult for residents of Juneau, but it seems like they could make the adjustment if necessary.

Perhaps the rest of us should pretend that electricity is slowly getting more expensive. That’ll reduce the sticker shock that’s affecting folks in Juneau right now. We can also put the difference between the actual price and the Juneau price into a savings account and use it to reduce our consumption with better appliances or other sources of electricity. If something terrible happens, like an avalanche or earthquake or peak oil, you’ll be okay. If nothing terrible happens, you’ll still have reduced your reliance on conventional electricity, saving you money and maybe, just a little, the planet.

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Linnea said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

    That’s a pretty brilliant idea, I’m wondering where 20+ unit apartment buildings fit in (like my own). We don’t have a generator, but we are lucky enough to have gas heat and stoves. A lot of apartments are all-electric… Do you know of any super-small scale generators that could be used in an apartment? Especially an apartment that doesn’t see sun half the year?

    I’m still working on getting my landlord to set up a compost bin next to the recycling…

  2. 2

    Will said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    Apartment buildings are nice because they’re very efficient. Waste heat from your apartment is heating the apartment next door (rather than the outdoors) and vice-versa. The problem is that landlords are less likely to update appliances because they don’t pay for utilities. Tim Harford (the Undercover Economist) suggests that if you set up a system where landlords pay for half your utilities, that would give both parties an incentive to save. Unfortunately, that’s kind of unwieldy so I doubt it’ll happen.

    There are some small-scale generators. You can get small solar panels put them in the windows or try for some passive solar heating of water, etc. There are also tiny wind turbines that are designed to attach to the sides of buildings. They require more wind to start up than others, but if you get 10-15mph winds, you’ll be okay. And, of course, since they’re so small they’re very local. Even if your region doesn’t get 10-15mph winds, the area at the side of your building might.

    If your landlord doesn’t go for the compost bin, you could try vermiposting. A worm bin is relatively small, doesn’t smell, and will handle two people’s food leavings just fine.

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