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Madison weighs pricey plan for 100 percent renewable energy
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Madison weighs pricey plan for 100 percent renewable energy

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Madison solar panels

Madison has already installed solar panels on some city buildings, including the Engineering Operations Facility, in foreground above, and a Streets Division facility, at rear, both on the South Side. A proposed renewable energy plan would dramatically expand the city's use of solar panels, replace fossil fuel vehicles with electric vehicles and increase energy efficiency at city buildings.

Madison is poised to take a next big step to address climate change with an initiative that would require $95 million in up-front investments but promises to dramatically reduce emissions and deliver substantial savings over time.

After two years of study, the City Council on Tuesday will consider recommendations from a consultant and the city’s Sustainable Madison Committee on how to achieve 100 percent renewable energy and zero net carbon emissions by 2030 through an array of actions including energy-efficient buildings, solar power and electric buses.

To get to 100 percent renewable energy, all city government energy needs must be met through generation of power from solar panels on city facilities or from clean energy elsewhere by investing in large solar or wind farms. Zero net carbon means slashing the city’s 95,000 tons of annual emissions.

The proposed plan would require a $95 million investment over 12 years and deliver $78 million in cost savings and health and societal benefits of $21 million to $162 million by 2030, according to a report by HGA of Milwaukee and Navigant Consulting of Chicago. It would reduce total carbon emissions by 426,000 tons by 2030, the report says.

Renewable energy, Fire Station No. 14

Madison's newest fire station, No. 14 on the Southeast Side, features translucent interior walls and geothermal equipment for heating and cooling.

The time is right for ambitious action and investment, said Raj Shukla, chairman of the Sustainable Madison Committee.

“The scenario with climate change is getting much more dire,” he said. “(But) technology to address issues has advanced dramatically.”

Shukla said the city’s actions can help inspire others to make similar moves.

In a 73-page report in November, HGA and Navigant offered three scenarios, with other options to achieve the 100 percent renewable energy and zero net carbon emissions goals by 2020 or 2023. Those options would be cheaper, use different strategies and result in smaller paybacks.

The Sustainable Madison Committee recommended the path to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, which is most closely aligned with the Paris Agreement on climate change, which the United States pulled out of last year. Under the Paris accord, emissions would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero by around 2050, the resolution says.

“The scientific community, worldwide, is sounding the alarm that climate change is upon us,” said Jeanne Hoffman, the city’s facilities and sustainability manager.

Taking steps

The city is already moving to address climate change, but not on the scale of the Sustainable Madison plan.

In 2012, the city adopted a broad sustainability plan with an array of ideas. The MadiSun program has helped roughly 100 homeowners and businesses install solar power. Another program trains unemployed and underemployed people to make solar installations. The city has five electric vehicles and secured a grant for 20 more, and the first three electric buses will be delivered in 2020.

Last year, the city began buying renewable energy credits in five solar installations in southwestern Wisconsin, which will help the city meet its 100 percent renewable energy goals and support economic development in that part of the state, Hoffman said.

Fire house, solar water heater

Madison Assistant Fire Chief Clay Christenson shows off a solar water heater at Fire Station No. 14, one of many energy-efficient features of the facility.

The city is also installing solar panels on buildings and ensuring new buildings are as energy efficient as possible, she said. The city’s newest Fire Station on the Southeast Side, for example, includes geothermal heating and cooling, and solar panels.

In 2017, Madison became the first city in the state and 25th in North America to set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy and zero net carbon emissions. Six cities have already hit their targets. The council also paid HGA and Navigant $250,000 to develop strategies with various timelines to achieve the goal. In January, the Sustainable Madison Committee endorsed the report’s recommendation to achieve the city’s goals by 2030.

In early February, Mayor Paul Soglin and 10 City Council members offered a resolution to accept the recommendations and timeline. The resolution has been approved by five city committees leading to the council’s review on Tuesday.

“We know that the economy is really a subset of the environment,” said Josh Arnold, Navigant’s associate director. “Clean air, clean water is the basis for the quality of life we enjoy in Madison. This is a huge opportunity for the city.”

Pursuing goals

To reach the goal, city operations would need to cut carbon emissions by 55 percent. At least 25 percent of the city’s electricity would need to come from self-generated renewable energy, such as solar panels on buildings. Transportation fuel use such as gasoline or diesel would need to be cut to zero. Investments in carbon offsets, such as solar farms in other places, would make up the remaining 45 percent of the carbon balance.

Electric bus

A renewable energy plan for Madison calls for changing Metro Transit's fleet of diesel buses to electric, such as this one, displayed at the city's bus garage in 2017.

The city would cut demand through energy efficiencies in buildings and street lights, electric buses and vehicles, and more. To generate 25 percent of its electricity, the city would work with local utilities to implement at least one utility-scale solar project in the area.

All of the scenarios assume Alliant Energy and MG&E have incorporated large-scale solar and wind projects in their power grids to achieve 30 percent renewable energy by 2030. The companies, however, have been pursuing more ambitious goals, Hoffman said.

The estimated $95 million in additional investments include:

  • $60 million to move from diesel to 232 electric buses, and changes to the vehicle fleet.
  • $16 million for solar installations in the area, plus $5 million for solar installations elsewhere.
  • $6 million for building efficiencies, largely through changing to LED lighting.
  • $5 million for more efficient LED streetlights.
  • $1.5 million to make water pumping more efficient.
  • $1.5 million to implement the program and other costs.

The resolution says the spending will be covered by borrowing and require about $928,000 in annual debt payments.

“It’s a matter of changing priorities,” Shukla said of the cost. “We have to make changes in how we allocate resources.”

The city will also look for grants “everyplace we can,” Hoffman added.

Investments would be repaid within 12 years through savings in the cost of fuel, operations and maintenance, while other societal benefits would continue well into the future, the report says.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that the consultant's report prepared to support the city's sustainability plan was prepared by HGA Milwaukee, in addition to Navigant of Chicago.]

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