Don's diary: powering down for the winter

May 23, 2003

New Zealand is in the grip of a power crisis. Either we reduce our power consumption by at least 10 per cent or it will be cold showers all round in time for winter. The crisis stems from a summer drought, fatal in a country that largely depends on hydro generation. I, like many others, suspect that the great market-led energy reforms of the 1990s have also contributed. Start to plan possible energy savings.

With unexpected speed the university issues emails and snazzy bookmarks urging power-saving measures. Stickers proclaiming "Save energy.

Pull the plug" magically appear over every light switch. My floor responds enthusiastically. Corridors and offices descend into dusky gloom.

This proves a touch problematic when selecting the correct of three identical keys to open my office, but I eventually solve the problem by applying a large dollop of Twink (Tippex, to you) to the office key.

Congratulate myself on having arranged my desk close enough to the windows to provide sufficient natural light.

Bad start to the day. I try to boot up the computer but nothing happens. Stare uncomprehendingly at it for some time before remembering that yesterday I turned the power off at the wall. Once the power is turned on, the system bursts into life with explosive sounds from the screen. My 15-year-old computer expert son assures me this is nothing to worry about.

Sweep off to give a lecture. As the lecture room has a bank of windows and I am using overheads, I switch off all the lights after checking with the students that they are happy with this. They sit mute throughout this exchange and I spend the rest of the lecture worrying that I am contributing to deterioration of their eyesight.

Newspaper headlines read: "Threat of cold showers by Friday" - this is the result of 18-hour water-heating cuts. Apparently, the country has not responded in the expected manner and savings are only 4.5 per cent.

This causes the rather unfortunately named Dr Strange of the Winter Power Taskforce to enjoin us again to save more energy, or else.

The Sunday papers are full of articles on saving energy and disgruntled letters from consumers. The general gripe is that there are few ways for domestic users to save energy; it is industry and commerce, which consume 75 per cent of power, that are not doing enough. One letter writer in an area still in drought writes that they can go ahead and cut her heating: she has no water to heat! The public is openly rebellious and wants someone to blame. The minister of energy looks a likely target, but is holding up well.

Good news at last. Palmerston North is to have a second wind farm close to the existing one on the city outskirts. The bad news is that it won't be on line until 2005.

I notice there are variable responses to energy saving within the university. Students seem reluctant to use leg power and still ride the lifts for one-floor journeys. The social science department appears to have taken the message to heart and operates in grey gloom, while marketing and accounting is bathed in light. Does this reflect a lack of social conscience or mere incompetence?

Caroline Miller is senior lecture in planning, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

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