City Life

Madison could be home of "Utility of the Future"

City thinks forward in energy conversation

It’s no surprise that Madison is a place where people are actively engaged in envisioning the future of energy generation and transmission. It’s the kind of thing we’re good at here. And the mix of science, technology, creativity and good old-fashioned activism is an attraction many Madisonians find irresistible. But Madison is about to embark on a shared journey, real first-in-the-nation stuff, that would set it apart as a place in control of its destiny. The result would be a Community Energy Partnership that would position Madison as a national, if not global, leader in how it powers itself.

Beginning this month, Madison Gas and Electric will convene the first of an anticipated fifty to one hundred Community Energy Conversations, in response to what utility president and CEO Gary Wolter calls a “threshold of transformational change” for his industry. Wolter and others know new technology is on the horizon—fuel cells, solar collectors, wind turbines and more—that will be more effective, cheaper and cleaner energy providers than what we have currently, especially coal. This raises significant questions, not the least of which is the impact on MGE’s responsibility to maintain “the grid,” essential infrastructure still needed despite more so-called disruptive technologies, as well as expectations the community might have for its local energy company. 

“We looked at the issues that had to be discussed,” says Wolter, “and knew that we wanted to ask customers, communities and stakeholders to help MGE become the utility of the future.” 

The invitation also fulfills a promise MGE made following the most recent rate restructuring approved, with some customer dissatisfaction, by the Public Service Commission. It is also not unprecedented. MGE conducted similar community conversations ten years ago that resulted in significant changes: the elimination of coal at the Blount Street plant, an increase in wind resources and a “green” pricing program.

But the scope of this round of Community Energy Conversations is unprecedented, as is the potential result. So MGE went looking for a partner in designing and facilitating the process, eventually hiring the consulting firm Justice & Sustainability Associates, whose CEO Don Edwards will lead the effort. The importance of this cannot be overstated. As odd as it is to say of a company with the near-impeccable reputation of MGE, some folks question the utility’s motivation. This is a company owned by shareholders, after all, and while it is regulated by the state, the size of the monthly bill is always a concern, understandably. Trust will be essential.

JSA’s business description includes “the creation of technologically smart, culturally competent, environmentally secure, economically just, moral, humane ‘beloved communities’ across the world.” It’s a priority for Edwards that the process reflects that commitment. He sees that possibility here. 

“When we finally learned enough about MGE’s last rate case and about the policy issues involved—climate change, disseminated power generation, equity, rapidly emerging technical innovations, net parity, etc.—we were like, ‘Whoa, this is cutting-edge stuff. It’s gonna be interesting,’” says Edwards. “We saw people raising good, hard questions that we thought needed to be answered in as forward-thinking a way as possible. We saw an opportunity to provide a view of what’s to come for other jurisdictions in the U.S. and across the world. Finally, once you stripped away the emotion, what you mostly had were people who share interests and want mostly the same things. The basic question we heard from everybody we spoke to was, ‘How much, by when?’ And arriving at implementable answers to that question when seen through the integrated lens of financial, environmental and social sustainability and justice seemed like a good candidate for the kind of process design and agreement reaching we’ve been helping emerge for years. So here we are.”

Edwards says he’s excited about beginning the Community Energy Conversations and helping MGE and Madison be home to an example of a “Utility of the Future.” So am I. 

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