Wisconsin Local Governments Taking the Lead in Sustainability | wisconsinacademy.org
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Climate and Energy Blog


Wisconsin Local Governments Taking the Lead in Sustainability

Mon, 02/22/2016 - 12:41pm -- Meredith Keller

Our February 9th event, The Promise of Paris (co-hosted with the UW Global Health Institute), provided a platform for five Wisconsin leaders across business, human rights, public health, and environment to share their recent experience at the 21st United Nations climate change conference (COP21). Each panelist brought his or her own perspective to the conclusions they shared. Of these conclusions, one stood out as a commonality: the importance of local actors in mitigating climate change. Indeed, each panelist pointed out the large presence of business and local government leaders at COP21. Representatives from these sectors participated in the conference alongside heads of state, eager to take part in ensuring a healthier future for their communities and the planet.

For decades local governments and businesses from around the globe have forged ahead in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, with or without support from leadership above. Wisconsin local government and business are a fine example. Companies like Organic Valley and Gundersen Health System, and cities like Monona, Milwaukee, Racine, Madison, and La Crosse are internationally recognized as leaders in renewable energy, waste reduction, energy efficiency, and transportation innovation.

In an effort to recognize and connect one of these sectors—the local governments—the Wisconsin Academy organized the first Wisconsin Local Government Summit on Energy & Resilience this past November. Over 70 government leaders and energy experts from across the state gathered in Stevens Point for what I hope was the first-annual of these events.

Jerry Deschane, Executive Director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, closed the conference by observing that “today we discussed the global and brought it home to the local, practical level.”

On the global end, this event stemmed from what many international organizations have started to recognize: that local units of government (cities, towns, villages, counties, even neighborhoods) are playing a critical role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions through energy innovation. These “subnational” entities are not waiting for national and state leadership to set policies. Instead, their leaders are often surpassing the “higher-ups” in areas of disaster preparedness and resilience, energy efficiency, renewable energies, and public transportation.

Wisconsin leaders are no exception, as our 2014 Climate Forward Report demonstrated. The 17 profiles we covered in the report brought to light the leadership shown by Wisconsin local governments, public services, and state-based businesses. Local public services like Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), regional NGOs such as WestCAP, and cities including Monona, Milwaukee, and Madison are all state or national leaders in regional resilience, energy efficiency, and clean energy use. You can read more about these excellent leaders by exploring the Climate Forward Profile Page.

The Summit also responded to local, Wisconsin-based needs. The Academy, along with its planning partners, crafted the full-day leadership summit from a survey we released earlier in the year. The results told us that our local governments are hungry to share their successes in energy innovation and resilience, and eager to learn what resources exists to further their projects. To this end, I convened a working group of key energy and local government leaders in Wisconsin, including the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, City of Milwaukee, Seventhwave, Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation, Wisconsin State Energy Office, Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council, and University of Wisconsin Extension.

We worked together to craft a program that local leaders could use to advance clean energy, energy efficiency, and resilience for their communities, and to learn what resources currently exist, and how organizations could collaborate more effectively. Below are three of the programs these leaders covered:

Energy & Cost Savings in La Crosse, Wisconsin

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat joined us as the keynote speaker to discuss his city’s local and global leadership in greenhouse gas emission reductions and the subsequent cost savings. In the early 2000s, La Crosse adopted a policy to reduce its fossil fuel emissions by 25% by 2025 (with a 2007 base year). Its energy efficiency programs in its government buildings and other facilities (streetlights, for example) have led to a 22% reduction in electricity use since 2007. As a result, La Crosse saves $180,000 each year, and keeps 6.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere annually. It has also reduced its paper use, saving them $42,500 each year, as well as its gasoline and diesel use for city vehicles.

In sum, their response to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and waste has saved the city a substantial amount of money—and created a healthier living environment.


PACE in Milwaukee

One of the key programs discussed was PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy)—an innovative model for “financing energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements on private property.” The program finances the up-front costs of energy efficiency initiatives for state and local governments, allowing property owners to pay back the cost over time.

Milwaukee is the first city in Wisconsin (to-date, the only city) to adopt the PACE program on a citywide scale. For Milwaukee, PACE is a public-private partnership that provides “financing to help commercial property owners affordably finance building upgrades like heating and cooling systems, lighting, controls, and solar.” Local private and public support has led to the approval of more than $10 million in Milwaukee-based PACE projects.

Indeed, PACE is a unique program given its combination of bottom-up and top-down (federal) support, and, through Milwaukee, Wisconsin has been a leader in its development.

Solar Project in Vernon County, Wisconsin

Joe McDonald, CEO & General Manager of Vernon Electric Cooperative, led a presentation on affordable community solar in Wisconsin. A national leader in solar-fueled utilities, Vernon Electric Cooperative is a rural utility serving about 10,000 people. Some years ago, the utility created the first community solar program in the state by partnering with Colorado and Massachusetts solar supplier Clean Energy Collective. Due to the project's low cost, its shares sold out quicker than any other US-based community solar program in history. Here are the highlights:

  • Largest solar program in the state at the time of development
  • Lowest cost in country at less than $2 per watt
  • First solar program to pay less than retail rate
  • 12 to 13 year payback

Vernon County Cooperative teaches us that Wisconsin citizens are eager to purchase community-based clean energy projects—not only for the environmental and cost benefits, but for their ability to build a sense of community.

Telling Their Stories

The Summit’s final 90 minutes gave attendees time to network in small groups around one of three issues: improving energy efficiency in government facilities, exploring local approaches to renewable energy, and encouraging public support and education on energy innovation. Despite the different topics, several common themes emerged among the discussions—first and foremost, that local governments are eager to tell their stories. According to one attendee, cities, towns, villages, and counties need help with the “coordination and promotion of success stories—and a template to follow.” In response, the Wisconsin Academy is working with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities this spring to build such a template. Coming in May, there will be new profiles in our Climate Forward web portal that features local-level action on energy in Wisconsin.


Hope for a Clean Energy Future

The Summit reinforced the fact that there exists a tremendous range of affordable options for local-level energy innovation in Wisconsin. Many communities are already leading from the front on renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste reduction, and resilience, and many of their initiatives are affordable. As one Summit attendee put it, “there is hope!”

What is your local energy story? Who do you want to connect with? I would love to hear from you.

You can read more about the Summit, and view all of the presentations by visit the event page here.


Meredith Keller was the Initiatives director at the Wisconsin Academy from 2014 to 2016, where she led both the Waters of Wisconsin and Climate & Energy Initiatives, and launched the statewide, annual Local Government Summit on Energy & Resilience.

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