The new chief executive of Madison Gas & Electric Co., Jeffrey Keebler, is:
- An ardent canoeist and camper
- Dad to four daughters
- A native of Orange, California, who spent his preteen and teenage years in Wayzata, Minnesota.
And no, Keebler, 45, is not part of that cookie and cracker company, known for its animated elves, that just happens to share his name.
A graduate of UW-La Crosse with a master’s in business administration from UW-Whitewater, Keebler has worked at MGE for his entire postcollege career, starting as a gas rate analyst in 1995 and working his way up, most recently, as senior vice president of energy supply and planning.
Two weeks into his new role as CEO and president of the utility company that serves most of the Madison area, Keebler said he plans to continue MGE’s efforts to increase renewable energy and decrease carbon emissions.
But he is not ready to commit to a goal of 100 percent renewable power — a proposal endorsed this week by the Madison Board of Estimates and up for a City Council vote next week.
Keebler also said MGE will roll out two new pilot programs for consumers later this year, and he said he does not plan to raised the fixed monthly charge for electricity, an issue that sparked the community’s anger three years ago.
In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Keebler said he will pursue the goals of Energy 2030, released in November 2015. It calls for fueling 25 percent of MGE’s energy sales from renewables by 2025 and 30 percent by 2030, cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and pushing energy conservation.
Keebler helped develop the policies. “I think Energy 2030 is a good framework for us,” he said.
But as far as taking renewable energy up to 100 percent of local power generation, Keebler was cautious.
“If we can go further, faster, we will,” he said. “MGE continues to partner with the city of Madison and the other communities we serve to help them achieve their sustainability goals.”
Keebler cited MGE’s plan, announced in February, to build a 66-megawatt wind farm in northeast Iowa. He said the utility’s Shared Solar program began offering up to 500 kilowatts from a solar panel installation in Middleton in January. It is fully subscribed and has a waiting list.
According to MGE, the Madison utility gets 13 percent of its power from renewables, 9 percent from natural gas or oil, 48 percent from coal-fired power plants and 30 percent is purchased on the open market. Spokesman Steve Schultz said the purchased power brings coal up to about two-thirds of MGE’s fuel source.
MGE owns 8.3 percent of the coal-fired Elm Road power plant that Milwaukee’s We Energies added in Oak Creek in 2010 and 2011. Meanwhile, MGE has trimmed its stake in the Columbia power plant near Portage, run by Madison’s Alliant Energy Corp., to 19 percent from 22 percent.
Asked if eliminating coal entirely is realistic, Keebler was noncommittal.
“As part of our framework, we have said that we will not build additional coal plants and we will plan for a transition away from aging fossil fuel-fired resources,” he said. “The energy world is evolving rapidly. New technologies offer new opportunities to be more sustainable.”
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Keebler also said he does not intend to raise fixed electric rates beyond their current levels.
“We did not change the residential fixed charge in our most recent rate case and, sitting here today, we see no need to increase it and we have no plans to do so,” he said.
MGE’s 2014 proposal for a big hike in fixed electric charges prompted an angry public response. After negotiations with the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin (CUB), the utility modified its request and raised the fixed rate — for delivering electricity to the customer and providing basic service — from $10.50 a month to $19 a month, in 2015.
The controversy also prompted a major effort by MGE to get more citizen participation in the utility’s planning process through a seven-month series of focus groups that culminated in a large workshop with community leaders.
Keebler said he will keep the public involved in decisions about energy use “in a variety of ways.”
He said MGE officials are working with CUB and Clean Wisconsin to design pilot programs “to see what customers think” about how to cover future costs. Those programs have not yet been defined.
When Keebler is not running MGE, he says his “second job” is as chauffeur to his four daughters, ages 9 to 16.
Along with his wife, Melissa, the family enjoys hiking, biking, camping and skiing, and especially an annual canoe trip down the Wisconsin River. No utility-driven heat or electricity to tap into, they pitch a tent on a sandbar and cook over an open fire, Keebler said.
Keebler credited his predecessor, Gary Wolter, who retired Feb. 28, for being “a fantastic mentor.”
“I love this company; I love this community. I believe MGE provides value to the community,” said Keebler. “Gary’s laid a great foundation ... I want to continue moving forward.”
Wolter, 62, worked at MGE since 1984 and served as president and CEO for 17 years. He continues for at least the next year as board chairman of the publicly traded company, which has 710 employees, 149,000 Madison-area electricity customers and 154,000 natural gas customers in southern and central Wisconsin.
Wolter is a member of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority Board. A native of Dubuque, Iowa, Wolter said he is becoming handy with a chain saw as he helps his wife, Mari, restore the prairie on the 100-acre property they own just north of Dubuque, in addition to their Madison home.
Even though North American power and utility mergers and acquisitions rose more than 50 percent in 2016 to 71 deals valued at $156.6 billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Wolter expects MGE to remain independent.
“We’ve run this company for a long time keeping the company independent and local. We take pride in being that community company,” Wolter said.
“And that’s how I intend to continue to run it,” Keebler added.