David Michael Miller
Marianne Ewig wonders what the planet will be like for her grandchildren. She worries about climate change, as humans continue to spew carbon into the atmosphere.
“I’m concerned about what I have done by not paying attention,” she says. “Now that I’m paying attention I’m going to do my best to turn things around so my grandchildren can have the same kind of life I have had.”
So when Ewig heard that MGE — the acronym that Madison Gas and Electric goes by — is holding “community energy conversations,” she jumped at the chance to participate. The conversations, MGE’s president and CEO Gary J. Wolter wrote, are intended to “help us build a community energy company for the future.” The conversations happen as the electric utility industry is being disrupted by new energy sources and technologies.
Ewig signed up to participate in a small discussion on Aug. 18 with four other MGE customers, who gave a facilitator feedback on what things they want the utility to prioritize. The people in Ewig’s group were well-versed on the issues relating to climate change, power generation and coal.
But she was upset by some of the questions they were asked. “I felt like a number of questions were baiting me to respond toward how MGE wanted me to respond,” she says. “I was troubled by that.” She refused to answers questions she thought were leading.
Nevertheless, she agrees with the company on one point — she wants MGE to become an “energy company of the future.”
“I want MGE to enter the 21st century and move forward and do it boldly, even if it means reduced profits,” she says. “And by the way, I am a shareholder.”
The energy industry is in a state of upheaval. Electric generation is responsible for 31% of the United States’ carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This is driving many people to conserve and buy energy-efficient appliances. Some people are even producing their own clean energy by installing solar panels, which feed energy into the grid.
This, in turn, is driving down revenues and profits for electric utilities, many of which have invested heavily in both maintaining the grid infrastructure and power generation, including coal-burning plants.
States and utilities around the country have responded in different ways, says Bentham Paulos, a journalist who wrote the soon-to-be published Empowered: A Tale of Three Cities Taking Charge of Their Energy Future. The book includes a section on Madison, as well as Minneapolis and Boulder, Colo.
Some utilities have responded by moving “to protect themselves against customers who aren’t using as much power as they once did,” Paulos says.
He counts MGE as a utility that made one of the most “egregious” moves in that direction, with a proposal last year to gradually jack up fixed charges to customers from $10 a month to $49, while lowering the rates it charges for usage. The effect would be to discourage conservation.
“If you can’t save money by conserving, few people will do that,” Paulos says. “If you can’t save money by putting up solar panels, very few people will do that.”
MGE eventually withdrew that request, and the state approved a more modest fixed-rate increase to $19.
Paulos — who will speak at the Goodman Center at 7 p.m. on Sept. 21 — says that other states and utilities have handled the disruptions by cutting up the industry, creating three separate sectors: one in charge of generating electricity, one in charge of maintaining the infrastructure that delivers energy to customers and a third that connects customers to power sources.
“In a monopoly system like Wisconsin, it’s all one company,” he says. “[Monopoly utilities] care most about investing in equipment, because that’s how they get paid. The more they can invest, the more they get paid.”
The more that utilities stick to the traditional structures, the harder it is for society to take advantage of new technologies, like Nest thermostats, which can monitor and reduce energy use. These technologies have even given way to new businesses that pay customers to allow them to control the energy use in their homes.
“They pay you for that because they’re getting paid to reduce power demand” by third parties, he says. “The Internet revolution is coming to the world of energy. But that can’t happen if regulators don’t let it happen and utilities don’t let it happen.”
The Community Conversations, which began earlier this year, are not unfolding the way public processes traditionally have. MGE hired Justice and Sustainability Associates (JSA), a Washington, D.C.-based firm, to engage the community. Don Edwards, the company’s chief executive officer, says JSA avoids town hall meetings that give everyone who shows up “three minutes at the mic.”
“You get 100 people lined up, and all those comments get recorded, but that doesn’t necessarily produce any consensus,” Edwards says. “It actually turns people off in expressing their views. We don’t find it an effective use of time or energy.”
Instead, JSA hopes to hold 75 small discussion groups (like the one Ewig participated in) with 10 to 15 people in each. The company is looking for meaningful input from a representative sample of MGE’s customer base. “We’re looking to represent a microcosm of greater Madison,” Edwards says. “We want people who have different views, who might not all see things the same way as to what MGE should do in terms of going forward.”
“Typically when you have a small group of people around a table, you don’t have to yell at anybody to be heard,” Edwards adds. The groups are facilitated to make sure nobody dominates the discussion.
Although JSA is seeking out various stakeholders to participate, anyone can sign up to take part in one of the sessions at MGE’s website. They can also take a survey or send in comments. Before the end of the year, JSA plans to hold a larger, invitation-only discussion to review feedback from the smaller sessions. The company will compile the results next year.
For Edwards, the goal isn’t just to collect input for MGE’s plan. The conversations are the beginning of a community partnership to help implement whatever plan is developed and “to monitor its implementation.”
Mitch Brey, a coordinator at RePower Madison — a group pushing MGE to be more environmentally friendly — worries the utility is too financially committed to coal power to take any of the feedback seriously.
The group’s recent report, The Coal Truth, analyzed MGE’s public filings and found that 70% of the utility’s power generation comes from two coal plants, Columbia and Elm Run, which it says the company is committed to running until 2038 and 2050.
“How can a utility committed to 70% coal for decades to come, how can that be the utility of the future?” Brey asks.
MGE spokesperson Steve Schultz responds to the 70% coal claim by writing, “In 2014, 48% of our electric generation was coal fueled, 13% came from renewable energy sources and 3% came from natural gas. The remaining 36% came from electricity we purchased on the open market, which is made up of a variety of fuels.” Based on those figures, it is possible that 70% of MGE’s power generation comes from coal.
That’s a big concern for environmentalists who want MGE to be more environmentally friendly. “The number one message that I brought there is MGE needs to take the climate crisis serious now and get off their reliance on coal,” says Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center who participated in one of the conversations.
Brey doesn’t know how seriously MGE will take these pleas. “I’m not sure if it’s a dog-and-pony show or a sincere attempt,” he says. “I do think it’s our best opportunity to get a better utility in Madison.”
Dana Brueck, MGE’s corporate communications manager, insists the company will take the feedback to heart.
“We have a track record of being responsive,” she says. “That’s why we’re holding these conversations to take a look at what customers want going forward.”