Plotting a local energy strategy is not a new concept — either for Madison Gas & Electric or for other communities.
Ten years ago, in January 2006, MGE released its Energy 2015 plan after holding two dozen “community energy conversations” with ratepayers. The Madison utility’s goals included shuttering part of the coal-fired Blount Street power plant Downtown, built in 1903, and converting the rest to natural gas fuel. That was completed in 2010.
Around the U.S., hundreds of communities have explored their energy future in some way, said Eleni Pelican, a policy advisor with the U.S. Department of Energy. Most often, those efforts have been initiated by a local government agency or official, she said, and have resulted in a variety of programs.
“Some are carbon mitigation plans; some are economic development-focused; some are efficiency focused,” Pelican said.
In fact, the DOE issued a 95-page guide, Introduction to Community Energy Strategic Planning, in 2013, offering a “step-by-step process for creating a robust strategic energy plan ... that can help save money, create local jobs, and improve our national security.” It cited 30 cities that have developed their own energy plans.
One of them, Arlington, Virginia, launched an effort in 2007 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help the community become more energy efficient, said Rich Dooley, Arlington County community energy coordinator.
By 2010, that turned into a more comprehensive project to develop a community energy plan. A 29-member task force was created, including elected officials and representatives of business, nonprofits and the two utilities serving the county: Washington Gas and Dominion Virginia Power.
Over the years, the task force grew, carved out objectives, held town hall meetings where hundreds of residents spoke, and in 2013, adopted an energy plan for Arlington, a 26-square-mile county with nearly 220,000 residents.
Strategizing to 2050, the plan “looks at energy through three lenses: economic competitiveness, energy security and resiliency and environmental commitment,” Dooley said. “Community involvement was a key element of this.”
Now called the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy, or AIRE, its achievements include opening a net-zero elementary school and creating a solar co-op that cuts the cost of installing solar panels.
Boulder’s big plan
Boulder, Colorado, has bigger mountains to climb. After an “extensive community engagement process,” the city of 110,000 has been working for several years toward a city takeover of the electrical infrastructure and service provided by Xcel Energy, said Boulder senior environmental planner Brett KenCairn.
“Emissions reduction was the driving consideration,” he said, as well as having a say in local energy sources and security.
“We don’t believe Xcel is adequately investing in the distribution infrastructure” — the poles, wires and substations that deliver electricity — especially in case the larger transmission line grid goes down, KenCairn said.
He said the city also wants to move dramatically to renewable fuels, with a goal of 100 percent of its energy coming from sources such as the sun and wind by 2030.
“It’s absolutely possible — with no new technologies needed,” KenCairn said.
Minneapolis opts for
Clean Energy Partnership
In Minneapolis, the city council approved a climate action plan in 2013, setting goals for greenhouse gas reduction by as much as 80 percent by 2050.
Some wanted the city to press the local utilities — Xcel Energy for electricity and CenterPoint Energy for natural gas — to help achieve those goals, said Stephanie Zawistowski, policy aide to Mayor Betsy Hodges.
The city commissioned a study; recommendations ranged from doing nothing to municipalizing the utilities. The result lay in between: creating a Clean Energy Partnership, directed by a board of elected officials and utility representatives, chaired by the mayor. It took effect Jan. 1, 2015.
A citizens’ Energy Vision Advisory Committee gives the board feedback. Eighty people applied for the 15 positions.
Together, they created a Home Energy Squad last fall to conduct energy audits of homes and apartments. Utilities cover most of the cost and the city obtained funding for a pilot program to subsidize homeowner co-payments.
“We specifically targeted people who don’t qualify for other low-income programs,” Zawistowski said.
The partnership is about reducing carbon emissions, adding renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency and making a bigger effort to connect with communities of color, said Laura McCarten, Xcel regional vice president. “I think we see this as something making us stronger as a community,” she said.