Community Leaders Share Aspirations and Successes for a Sustainable Wisconsin | wisconsinacademy.org
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Community Leaders Share Aspirations and Successes for a Sustainable Wisconsin

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 8:40am -- Kelly Hilyard

Right now in Wisconsin, much of the meaningful work in energy planning and climate change mitigation is happening through local government and the businesses and organizations that support their efforts.  Mayors across Wisconsin  have signed resolutions supporting the Paris Accord—an international pact to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions—after the U.S. announced its intent to pull out of the agreement in 2017. Over 140 Energy Independent Communities have set a goal of generating 25% of energy from renewable sources by 2025. Last year the City of Madison became the first city in Wisconsin to commit to a goal of using 100% renewable energy by 2050, and also to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero across all municipal sectors including electricity, heating, and transportation. Public support for aggressive action on climate change, led by local government leaders, is helping communities make a case for these ambitious and necessary goals. 

Through the Academy’s Climate and Energy Initiative, we convened in April 2018 our third annual Local Government Summit—Leading the Charge in Eau Claire. We couldn’t have chosen a more fitting host: three weeks prior to the summit the City of Eau Claire unanimously passed a resolution to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050 at both municipal and community levels; and to achieve 100% renewable energy use for both the municipal government operations and the broader community by 2050. Needless to say the bar is now set high for the region, and Eau Claire’s lofty goal will provide motivation and a sample roadmap for other communities to make similar commitments to clean energy, resilience, and sustainability. 

Of course, the devil is in the details for how municipalities utilize different tools and strategies to achieve their energy goals. Mayors, city council representatives, planners, and engineers who attended the Leading the Charge summit were anxious to hear from experts in the energy field about how best to harness the technologies and the economics to meet their goals. For all counties, cities, and villages there are challenges around financing projects, finding the workforce necessary to employ these technologies, and managing the starts, stops, and workarounds that early adopters face in applying energy planning decisions. The resounding and recurring theme heard from utilities, energy portfolio managers, local and state government offices, solar providers, and university officials during the summit was, “Partner, partner, partner!” Cities need to partner with their utilities, tap into new financing options and models, and engage a wider and more diverse swath of the community during planning. Perhaps most important: we all need to work together to make energy itself visible to the public so that citizens can see an entry point for actionable change. 

Oscar Brandser from Xcel Energy, an electric utility in the region, talked about how successful engagement with the City of Eau Claire and collaboration on energy planning will help local leaders and citizens become more knowledgeable about their energy use. Xcel’s robust energy monitoring and reporting tools can help city and county governments set sustainable performance targets and baselines, monitor progress, and document energy savings. He used a “leaky faucet” analogy to make the case for public engagement: Leaky faucets are fixed immediately because we can see and hear them. Making energy visible and relatable is a first step to making policy change. 

A shift to cleaner energy within municipalities must sometimes overcome real concerns over adopting new technologies or practices. One example of this that resonated with summit attendees came from La Crosse Assistant Chief of Police Robert Abraham, who spoke about the importance of building confidence in new technologies. When Chief Abraham’s department transitioned some of the squad car fleet from gasoline to liquid propane, police officers were worried a stray bullet could cause a fuel tank to explode. Watching a Mythbusters TV show where bullets were fired at a propane tank and nothing happened helped assuage these safety fears. Later, when one of their vehicles was in a rear-end accident, the safety valves deployed as they were designed to and the crash resulted in no unusual or unexpected damage. Today the La Crosse Police Department has sixteen LP-fueled squad cars in their fleet, and last year alone they saved $48,000 on fuel costs. This is just one of many sustainability improvements that summit keynote speaker Mayor Tim Kabat has overseen in La Crosse.

As the first day of the summit wrapped up and we all gathered at the reception to drink local beer and the jazz band’s exuberant melodies filled my ears, I was reminded that community—this community of my peers, but also my home community—is where we are going to make the most gains in renewable energy right now. But what about the future? Neal Gruber, an engineer and one of our presenters, shared the idea of designing for the future instead of trying to repair the past. In the face of extreme weather-related disasters and other challenges fueled by climate change, Gruber said that we must embrace 21st century thinking and not fall back on 20th century systems and responses. Resource sharing between communities, collaboration with key partners, and thoughtful energy planning at multiple levels will help us move forward more quickly and efficiently towards a more equitable and sustainable future.

To view presentations from the 2018 Local Government Summit, visit the Day 1 and Day 2 pages on the Leading the Charge webpage. Select sessions will air on Wisconsin Public Television’s University Place in the coming months.

Are you looking for funding opportunities for advancing sustainability in your community? Check out these resources:

  1. Office of Energy Innovation: Wisconsin City Village, Town, County and Tribal Governments, manufacturers, and K-12 school districts are encouraged to apply for the $5 million available in the inaugural grant ground of the Energy Innovation Grant Program that seeks to support reduction of energy consumption, increased use of renewable energy, and resiliency planning.
  2. UW-Extension’s Solar Financing Resource Guidebook: A UW-Extension publication that covers financing for solar projects ranging from local and tribal governments installing solar systems on their own roofs and land, to assisting local businesses and residents with acquiring solar.
  3. PACE Financing: Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is a means of financing energy efficiency upgrades or renewable energy installations for residential, commercial and industrial property owners.
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Kelly Hilyard is the program assistant for the Academy’s Climate and Energy Initiative. She has twenty years of experience working on sustainability projects as an organic farmer, landscape architect, and, most recently, as a LEED AP+ project manager in the green building industry.

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