More than 200 community leaders gathered at the Monona Terrace Convention Center to discuss Madison’s energy future. In an event hosted by the local utility company Madison Gas & Electric area residents with a vested interest in safe, reliable and affordable power generation shared their thoughts on how businesses and private homes might receive the best possible products and services.
Unlike the typical “town hall meeting”, where attendees voice their opinions one at a time while standing in line in front of a microphone, this gathering was a well-orchestrated affair. Moderated by Justice & Sustainability Associates, a community engagement firm based in Washington D.C., the workshop gave each participant the opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns while becoming actively involved in the process to achieve a series of ambitious goals over the next 15 years.
The Energy 2030 Community Workshop involved an intricate method of public engagement. Using state-of-art electronic communications and data processing technology the organizers collected and displayed in realtime the ideas and concerns of every person in room willing to share their ideas. Designated scribes and discussion leaders at dozens tables recorded keywords, phrases and comments into tablet computers that transmitted their findings to a central hub where the information was compiled and projected onto a giant screen for everyone to see. Lead by JSA chief executive Don Edwards the exercise was performed with remarkable efficiency and accuracy in a fast-paced session that lasted just under three hours.
“We finished about 30 minutes early,” Edwards said afterward. “People were excited. The room was extremely diverse. We got excellent content. I think it was a complete home-run!”
With demographics that reflect Madison as a whole the audience was well-engaged and enthusiastic. Emphasizing the importance of generating heat and electricity that are clean and cost effective those in attendance shared a variety of economic, social and environmental issues that matter to them most.
“I think MG&E is going to take everything that they heard and they’re going to do some analysis around prioritizing those issues that are most important,” Edwards said. “People want to be kept informed on a regular basis. They want progress monitored. That’s something that they should expect from MG&E. But I also hope that people understand that’s a two-way street. They also should be expected to continue to engage with this company so that it can deliver what they want.”
Though the company has very little in the way competition, the concerns of its customers are apparently important to MG&E. Having met several conservation goals in 2015, including the elimination of a Downtown Madison coal-fired power plant and having reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 2005, the company wants to do all that it can to meet the most pressing needs of its ratepayers. However as a for-profit institution MG&E must also appease the interests of stockholders who demand a high rate of return on their investments. Taking action in the best interests of its customers can cost the company money. It’s often difficult to strike just the right balance between profitability and customer satisfaction. Rate increases announced in 2014, for example, were met with outrage as local consumers expressed their desire to be included in the planning of any changes in the future. In an effort to improve community engagement through the foreseeable future MG&E created the Energy 2030 Workshop.
“What my concern going forward is if they will really see this as an opportunity to make a significant change, to really partner with the community,” said Don Ferber a local environmental activist. “I think that they could be doing great things for this community if they decide that they really want to pay attention to the community as much as they want to pay attention to the shareholders.”
The challenge that lies before MG&E is how this company can do right by its customers and still turn a reasonable profit. The utility aims to create a framework that calls for an end to any new coal power plants, an additional 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions and 30 percent renewable resources all by the year 2030. MG&E also aims to introduce new energy efficient products and services and directly engage with consumers in order to help manage their energy usage. This workshop is the first step toward establishing a relationship with ratepayers and a commitment to make improvements toward a very positive energy future.
“I don’t know of any other process that has engaged the community in this way from any work that I’ve done. This is taking it to another level getting regular community folks involved, so that whatever the end product is, I believe in it,” said Kaleem Caire, a community leader and CEO of One City Early Learning Centers, a charter pre-school. “Clearly for me it shows that whatever decisions MG&E makes they’re going to help businesses and individuals make the adjustment… I think that taking this level of engagement and putting it into action is going to be huge.”
This story appears in the May issue of Umoja Magazine.
Continuing coverage of Energy 2030 is made possible with the support of Madison Gas & Electric and The New Green Challenge Please share your questions and comments below.
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