MGE plans for the future
Marianne Ewig wonders what the planet will be like for her grandchildren. She worries about climate change, as humans continue to spew carbon into the atmosphere.
“I’m concerned about what I have done by not paying attention,” she says. “Now that I’m paying attention I’m going to do my best to turn things around so my grandchildren can have the same kind of life I have had.”
So when Ewig heard that MGE — the acronym that Madison Gas and Electric goes by — is holding “community energy conversations,” she jumped at the chance to participate. The conversations, MGE’s president and CEO Gary J. Wolter wrote, are intended to “help us build a community energy company for the future.” The conversations happen as the electric utility industry is being disrupted by new energy sources and technologies.
Ewig signed up to participate in a small discussion on Aug. 18 with four other MGE customers, who gave a facilitator feedback on what things they want the utility to prioritize. The people in Ewig’s group were well-versed on the issues relating to climate change, power generation and coal.
But she was upset by some of the questions they were asked. “I felt like a number of questions were baiting me to respond toward how MGE wanted me to respond,” she says. “I was troubled by that.” She refused to answers questions she thought were leading.
Nevertheless, she agrees with the company on one point — she wants MGE to become an “energy company of the future.”
“I want MGE to enter the 21st century and move forward and do it boldly, even if it means reduced profits,” she says. “And by the way, I am a shareholder.”
The energy industry is in a state of upheaval. Electric generation is responsible for 31% of the United States’ carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This is driving many people to conserve and buy energy-efficient appliances. Some people are even producing their own clean energy by installing solar panels, which feed energy into the grid.
This, in turn, is driving down revenues and profits for electric utilities, many of which have invested heavily in both maintaining the grid infrastructure and power generation, including coal-burning plants.
States and utilities around the country have responded in different ways, says Bentham Paulos, a journalist who wrote the soon-to-be published Empowered: A Tale of Three Cities Taking Charge of Their Energy Future. The book includes a section on Madison, as well as Minneapolis and Boulder, Colo.
Some utilities have responded by moving “to protect themselves against customers who aren’t using as much power as they once did,” Paulos says.
He counts MGE as a utility that made one of the most “egregious” moves in that direction, with a proposal last year to gradually jack up fixed charges to customers from $10 a month to $49, while lowering the rates it charges for usage. The effect would be to discourage conservation.
“If you can’t save money by conserving, few people will do that,” Paulos says. “If you can’t save money by putting up solar panels, very few people will do that.”
MGE eventually withdrew that request, and the state approved a more modest fixed-rate increase to $19.