Green utility plan grows: Madison Gas & Electric expanding popular program

MADISON, WISCONSIN - Responding to growing concern from Madison area residents about global warming, Madison Gas & Electric will triple the size of its green-power pricing program and reopen the program to new customers.

The utility announced the plan to expand its renewable-energy pricing program. This allows customers to pay extra on their monthly electric bill as a way to support development of renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels

More customers will be able to choose to pay extra on their bills each month because the utility has new wind power projects coming on line early next year. That will triple the amount of "green" power available to customers who pay the premium price. Madison Gas & Electric sold out its pricing program in two months when it was launched in 1999.

There are currently 4,300 customers who participate. The utility is trying to tap into greater public attention to and concern about global warming, said Laura Williams, a utility market development manager.

When green-power programs were unveiled in the late 1990s, customers signed up because they wanted to "do something good for the environment," she said.

But the utility's research found "customers talk increasingly about personal responsibility for minimizing their environmental footprint, or carbon footprint," she said. "That's really been climbing." The decision to expand the green-power program comes after a series of meetings with customers. But a key factor for the utility was finding a way to reduce the price.

Today, MG&E's green-pricing rate is higher than any other utility in the state. "At each of our community meetings there was somebody in the room who was on a fixed income or was a student, and while they all agreed it was important to do something, they were very concerned about the cost of their energy overall," said Greg Bollom, assistant vice president of energy planning at the utility.

"People want renewables, but they understand that not everybody can afford to pay for that yet." Based on typical household use of 600 kilowatts of electricity a month, the typical customer would see their monthly bill rise by less than $10 to offset the carbon-dioxide emissions of their electricity use, Bollom said.

Details of the proposal won't be known until later this year, when the state Public Service Commission sets new rates for MG&E customers. MG&E said it hopes to sign contracts soon for wind-power projects in Wisconsin and Illinois that will let it triple the size of its green-pricing program and reduce customer cost.

In its meetings with customers, the utility has been urged to stop relyin as heavily on power plants that burn coal for electricity. Coal is the most greenhouse-gas intensive kind of power generation. MG&E relies on coal for much of its power, and renewable power sources such as wind turbines and solar panels represent just 1.5% of its energy mix.

That will increase to 3.5% by early next year, after the company starts importing wind power from the To of Iowa wind farm, the company says. MG&E announced last year that it plans to retire its coal-fired power plant in downtown Madison. The utility will continue to rely on coal power through its contract to buy power from the Oak Creek power plants under construction by Milwaukee-based Wisc nsin Energy Corp.

Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club's Madison office said expanding the green-pricing program should have been done earlier. The Sierra Club continues to challenge MG&E to rely less upon coal, he said.



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