What happens when 75 thoughtful Wisconsin leaders come together to tackle a challenge? Good things!
The Academy hosted its second Local Government Summit on Energy & Resilience on April 5 in Fond du Lac’s beautiful and welcoming Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts. Local government leaders from more than a dozen Wisconsin communities gathered around tables with energy experts, educators, advocates, and concerned citizens for a productive discussion on how the world of energy is changing and what that means for local decision-making, as well as practical approaches communities are using to forge their own way into the clean energy future.
Old assumptions about where our energy comes from, how it is generated and how we use it are changing rapidly, and our panel of utility leaders and local decision-makers explored community needs and how utilities are working to bridge new expectations from their customers. One example of the fast-changing energy landscape is WPPI Energy and NextEra Energy Inc.’s plans to build a 100-megawatt solar generating station on land adjacent to the now-dormant Point Beach Nuclear Power Plant in Two Rivers. It’s an exciting way to re-purpose the electrical grid connectivity already in place, to respond to customer interest in renewable energy, and reduce emissions. When completed in 2021, it will be the largest solar array in the state.
Still, utility planning is encumbered by long-term investments in power plants, a complex regulatory system, and business models based on selling electricity instead of selling comfortable, modern, efficient living. Milwaukee’s Director of Environmental Sustainability, Erick Shambarger, urged a larger “dose of democracy” in energy planning in the state, which resonated with many of the participants.
Local leaders in the vanguard of new strategies shared their wisdom from ventures in new solar installations, shifting to LED street lighting, and investments in efficiencies and conservation in commercial buildings. While, federal and state action to reduce greenhouse gases and provide cleaner, more efficient energy is largely in limbo, it is clear that local leaders are breaking new ground. Our moderators probed the panelists for elements of success that can help other communities join the wave of local leadership. Here’s the quick distillation of their best tips:
- Collaborate and learn from others already working in this arena, and form local partnerships with a range of community stakeholders.
- Develop a written plan that is strategic and gives you the pathway to reach your goal.
- Leadership counts. The success stories we heard had either a visible and tenacious local champion leading the effort, or executive leadership at the top, such as in the mayor’s office, a local corporation, or in the partnering utility.
- Leverage existing networks and resources. The Green Tier Legacy Communities program can provide links to other Wisconsin communities and their experience, Focus on Energy has several channels to provide resources for energy efficiency and conservation projects, the Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation can provide technical support and link complementary projects and needs, and UW-Extension has a new guide on Solar Energy Financing.
- Document the savings in energy and money, and other successes. (It helps to have baseline data at the beginning of a project, and benchmarks along the way.)
- Share lessons learned and tell your stories.
- Communicate in ways that people will understand. Several speakers noted that phrases or words like “climate change” and “sustainability” can be off-putting to some, or vague. Milwaukee is talking about “eco-smart” projects; others urged invoking the values behind sustainability when we talk about energy and climate issues. These include “local self-reliance,” “common sense approaches,” “avoiding waste,” and “caring for the next generation”—all of which are woven into Wisconsin culture.
Three other important observations from the day have really stuck with me.
- We shouldn’t overlook the benefits of energy efficiency, which is often the least cost for the biggest gains. But, at the same time, we should understand the importance of investing in renewable infrastructure like solar arrays that deliver deep emissions reductions, as well as how public enthusiasm for innovative technologies can help spur greater engagement, education, and action. The pathway to cleaner energy requires a balance of promoting the easily realized savings from things like insulation and efficient lighting, appliances and vehicles, while at the same time capturing the excitement and opening the way for new horizons in energy production.
- Wisconsin doesn’t have a mandate for integrated energy resource planning. Perhaps it is time to revisit how Wisconsin is (or is not) laying the groundwork for the new horizons, including a more potent dose of democracy in utility decision-making.
- Local action and leadership can drive state and federal action, and if Wisconsin’s local leaders are an indication of the kind of vision, grit, and practical solutions that are already driving action, there is much to look forward to in the decades to come.