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Many municipalities, including Dane County, Madison, Fitchburg and Middleton, have installed solar panels on roofs to generate electricity for municipal operations. Seven cities and villages hope to expand renewable energy use even more.

Looking to reduce or even eliminate climate change-causing carbon emissions, seven area cities and villages are partnering with a consulting firm to develop energy plans that will help boost the use of renewable energy and improve energy efficiency.

Fitchburg, Marshall, Middleton, Monona, Stoughton, Sun Prairie and Waunakee are partnering with Madison-based energy research firm Seventhwave, now a part of Slipstream, to set individualized priorities for minimizing their carbon footprints and their effects on climate change using a $200,000 grant from the state Office of Energy Innovation.

Middleton and Fitchburg have both passed resolutions setting goals for eliminating fossil fuel use in some or all parts of city operations, and Monona is set to vote on a set of energy goals Monday. The other cities and villages have not passed specific goals but will still be seeking solutions to limit carbon emissions.

The goals will be used in forming energy plans to guide the municipalities’ efforts to reduce emissions, Slipstream senior researcher and project manager Jeannette LeZaks said. The plans will be completed by early next year, she said.

“Our goal is to give the communities a road map ... to help the communities to prioritize opportunities for the short term,” LeZaks said.

Each municipality is at a different step in the process of reducing emissions, LeZaks said, which is why individual plans will work best.

Abby Attoun, Middleton director of community development, said that by the end of the year 50 percent of the city’s electricity for municipal operations will come from renewable sources such as wind or solar. Middleton has passed a set of goals calling for 100 percent renewable electricity for municipal operations by 2035.

Fitchburg set a goal for using only renewable electricity sources in municipal operations by 2030. The city currently gets about 21 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, according to a report by the city’s sustainability specialist, Ellen Geisler.

Pat Marsh, Fitchburg city administrator, said the city will need to commit to funding the new projects and methods proposed in the plan. They won’t be cheap for the city up front, but they save money in the long run, according to Geisler’s report.

“The 20 percent (of renewable electricity) we’ve already achieved so far was the low-hanging fruit,” Marsh said. Sourcing more renewable energy is “probably going to get more difficult from here. There will be costs associated with that.”

Monona’s goal proposal also calls for reaching 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

Middleton set a goal for obtaining all energy, including fuel, from renewable sources by 2040, and Monona’s proposed goals set the same timeline. Fitchburg did not include goals for non-electric energy use in its resolution.

Middleton’s goals and Monona’s proposal also set a timeline for the entire communities to reach 100 percent renewable energy use by 2050.

Global goals

Attoun said the push for renewable energy comes in part from the Paris climate agreement, in which countries around the world agreed to work together to limit global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius by reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. The United States pulled out of that agreement under President Donald Trump’s administration, but many communities and municipalities have called for working toward the goal without support from the federal government.

Although it is not part of this planning process, Madison also committed in 2017 to fully using energy from renewable sources . A date for reaching goals was not specified, but Madison will vote on an implementation plan this month.

Dane County also has committed to reducing carbon emissions. Keith Reopelle, director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change director, said the county is already producing more clean energy than it uses. The surplus electricity flows onto Madison Gas & Electric’s grid for others to use.

Reopelle said county staff have been developing an energy plan that will be finalized over the summer. He said every community in Dane County will need to work on energy efficiency goals to stop the effects of climate change. The intense rain and flooding late last summer was “a taste” of those effects, he said.

Area businesses, including members of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council, are also stepping up to combat climate change without regulatory requirements.

While the plans for the seven municipalities will be individualized, representatives from each municipality will be sharing information and ideas with each other, Attoun said. She said the cities and villages have previously discussed renewable and clean energy options and strategies, but this will be the largest project on which they’ve come together.

“I think it’s really neat to have a concrete project to be working on together,” Attoun said.

The municipalities will likely take a two-pronged approach at reaching electricity goals, based on the goals passed so far. While purchasing more or boosting production of renewable energy, the municipalities will also drastically cut energy use.

The plans won’t change municipal energy structure overnight but will set priorities for steps that can be taken each year, such as installing solar panels on municipal roofs, purchasing more energy-efficient appliances for the buildings, or implementing other green energy solutions.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.