Some of Madison’s best known movers and shakers — as well as dozens of less prominent advocates for the area’s diverse interest groups — converged on Monona Terrace on Tuesday evening to talk about energy.
The Community Energy Workshop, organized by Madison Gas & Electric (MGE), drew participants ranging from Downtown Madison Inc. President Susan Schmitz to James Tye, executive director of the Clean Lakes Alliance, to Kaleem Caire, former CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison and now founder and CEO of One City Early Learning Centers.
About 200 people were convened “to give Madison a way to look into the future,” said Don Edwards, CEO of Justice & Sustainability Associates (JSA), the Washington, D.C., consultant firm MGE hired to guide its yearlong effort to hear from the public.
Even before the three hours of discussions began, participants came prepared to give MGE an earful.
“I want accountability. I want their offerings to reflect the desires of their customers,” like more solar power and programs that will reward consumers for conserving energy, said Brad Hinkfuss, of the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association. MGE will have to “change its business model and offer things people are really excited about,” he said.
“Renewable and resilient energy” is what Kate Heiber-Cobb wanted to advocate. Founder of the Madison Area Permaculture Guild, Heiber-Cobb said MGE should build energy cooperatives, where, for example, customers could share in solar power as cooperative members “so it’s accessible to more people.”
Penny DePaola, coordinator of Eco-Action Tuesdays, agreed, adding that MGE’s proposed Middleton solar project is along those lines. The Madison utility company wants to build a 500-kilowatt solar array at the Middleton Municipal Operations Center. It would serve 250 customers who would pay a fee to participate and then be charged 12 cents per kilowatt hour for the solar energy for up to 25 years.
Feted with an elegant buffet of antipasto, finger sandwiches, crudites, cheese and fruit, participants settled into tables of eight to watch videos and then discuss three rounds of topics: how to advance MGE’s Energy 2030 plan; which new products and services customers want; and how to further engage with the community.
The suggestions for MGE, overheard at the tables, included offering small wind-energy installations for local businesses; having MGE consider going into the solar installation business; and providing more public education about energy, as early as elementary school, to get young people interested.
Electricity should be “efficiently available, economically reasonable and environmentally positive,” said one participant.
Others said MGE should promote home-energy audits and offer financial incentives for tools to save energy.
“You’ve given us a lot to think about,” CEO and chairman Gary Wolter said, promising to “personally go through every comment that we’ve gotten.”
“We need to think in terms of partnerships — to meet you where you all are. You’re not all in the same spot,” he said.
Fatou Ceesay, of the SeneGambia Women’s Association, said she was glad MGE asked for her participation. “I want to see them meet those goals. But I want them to not meet them on the backs of consumers, something reasonable for customers to afford.”
“Consider how it impacts those voices that aren’t here,” said Peng Her, of the Center for Resilient Cities.
The workshop was the final public phase of MGE’s community outreach. Themes discussed and videos presented will be posted on MGE’s website, and the public is invited to comment on them.