The last major gathering in Madison Gas and Electric‘s yearlong community involvement project will be held Tuesday evening from 5:30-9 p.m. at Monona Terrace.

More than 200 people are expected to participate in the Community Energy Workshop, capping what the Madison utility company calls “a multi-step engagement effort that is unprecedented in scope.”

Prompted by a strong public outcry against a proposal, introduced in 2014, for a dramatic change in its rate structure, MGE has been seeking public comment on its future energy strategy through a series of steps designed and coordinated by a Washington, D.C., consultant firm, Justice & Sustainability Associates (JSA).

Even so, the utility’s moves continue to irk RePower Madison, a citizens group formed in the wake of the rate proposal.

And while MGE’s project may be unique for this area, it could be seen as part of a growing wellspring — nationwide — of community involvement in energy decisions.

Hundreds of cities across the U.S. have discussed their energy future, sometimes setting carbon reduction goals, encouraging energy efficiency, and in the case of at least one city — Boulder, Colorado — initiating a city takeover of the local utility provider.

“As of 2010, around 650 communities, that we know of, had done some form of community energy planning,” said Eleni Pelican, policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs, in Washington, D.C., citing figures from the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

MGE spokeswoman Dana Brueck declined to provide an estimate of the cost of the utility’s yearlong project or to specify if stockholders of the publicly traded company or utility ratepayers will bear the expense.

At Tuesday’s session, participants will be divided into small groups — tables of eight residents, each with a facilitator and someone recording responses.

“Consensus at each table is not the aim,” Don Edwards, CEO of JSA, said in an email interview. “The objective of each task is to generate as many diverse views as possible.”

Topics were not disclosed but Edwards said the rate case that precipitated the public talks will not be among them. “MGE is not seeking technical guidance from the workshop. There is no planned discussion on specific rate structures,” he said.

Videos presented by MGE “related to the Energy 2030 framework and community engagement” will precede the discussions, Brueck said.

The workshop “will be an opportunity for deliberative dialogue from a comprehensive cross-section of differing perspectives from throughout our community and the 146,000 electric customers we serve,” the utility said in a statement posted on its website.

MGE selected the workshop participants but has not publicly disclosed the names of people or organizations represented. The meetings are not open to the public, but the video presentations will be posted on MGE’s website and consumers will be able to comment on them. Main issues that emerge from participants’ discussions will also be posted, Brueck said.

“This has been an inclusive process,” Brueck said.

Although RePower and the Citizens Utility Board confirmed they were invited and will each have a member at the session, RePower spokesman Mitch Brey said it was curious that the utility was choosing participants and not throwing the doors open to all-comers. “This is supposed to be an impartial process,” Brey said.

Mayor Paul Soglin is not on the list, and the workshop is being held on the same night as a Madison City Council meeting. Soglin is not concerned, though, that he was not invited. Spokeswoman Katie Crawley said the mayor has had informal conversations with MGE’s CEO Gary Wolter and with JSA’s CEO Don Edwards. “They’re on the same page,” she said.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has not been asked to attend, either, spokeswoman Stephanie Miller said.

JSA initially said it would hold several town hall-style meetings to conclude the process, suggesting the meetings would be open to the public. But MGE said it already has heard from hundreds of people through small group meetings called Community Energy Conversations, held last July through November.

A report JSA released in late December said 98 of the meetings were held. About 650 registered to attend; about 250 others submitted comments or filled out a worksheet.

Their top-priority messages to MGE: Shift away from power plants run on fossil fuels, and give residents more tools to be energy efficient, JSA’s 154-page report concludes.

“Participants made clear in their comments and questions that they want MGE to transition to a more environmentally sustainable energy supply and to help customers control their energy use and costs,” the report says.

Many speakers “were unhappy with MGE’s handling of its 2014 rate case,” the report also says, because they felt it hurt low-income residents and discouraged energy conservation.

The proposal would have raised fixed charges for electricity from $10.50 to $67 a month by 2017 and lowered kilowatt-hour rates for the amount of power used. MGE scrapped that plan, under fire from the public, opting instead to raise fixed charges to $19 a month in 2015.

Last November, one month before JSA’s report, MGE unveiled its own plan, Energy 2030 Framework. Its main goals include using renewable sources to meet 30 percent of retail customers’ electricity use by 2030; reducing carbon dioxide emissions; and encouraging energy efficiency and conservation.

JSA’s report recommends forming a long-term collaborative Community Energy Partnership later this year based on results of the workshop “in support of further developing MGE’s Energy 2030 Framework.” Neither JSA nor MGE would speculate on a format for the collaborative.

With 146,000 electric customers, “we believe it’s important to have many different partnerships and collaborations with many different perspectives and stakeholders,” MGE’s Brueck said in an email exchange.

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• Communities around U.S. form energy strategies. D9


Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.