Madison citizens group warms to utility with new wind farm proposal, new CEO

Advocates who have been pressuring a Wisconsin utility to adopt more clean energy are applauding the recent announcement of a new wind project in Iowa.

Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) said last week that it plans to build a 66 MW wind farm in Howard County, Iowa, 200 miles west of Madison. The utility says the move will help it meet its goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2030, and that wind is a cost-competitive option to meet generation needs.

There will be 33 turbines over 10 square miles, each turbine 500 feet tall, about 100 feet taller than the utility’s existing nearby Top of Iowa wind farm.

“It represents a cost effective option to provide clean energy to our customers,” said MGE spokesperson Dana Brueck. “Wind turbine technology has improved. It has become more affordable and more efficient. This project is one of the least cost options. It also will increase the diversity of our electric generation mix and help provide a price hedge if fuel prices spike higher.”

The proposed wind project needs approval from Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission (PSC) and approvals related to construction and road weight limits in Iowa. Brueck said the proposal will be submitted to the PSC in March and the company expects construction to begin in spring 2018, with the turbines online by the end of 2018.

“The Saratoga site was selected for a number of reasons,” Brueck said. “The site has strong wind resources. The site is construction-ready and cost competitive. It is close to an established substation and transmission lines with available capacity.”

The project would represent about a 50 percent increase in MGE’s current wind portfolio, which is 137 MW including power purchase agreements with wind farms that the utility does not own.

Mitch Brey, organizer of the citizens group RePower Madison, said local advocates are very pleased with the utility’s announcement. And he thinks the group’s and individual residents’ years of demanding more renewable energy may have influenced the utility.

“It does show some real initiative,” on MGE’s part, Brey said. “MGE customers have really been speaking up. This is one of the things they’ve been asking for very clearly. There are a number of other things the company should do to fulfill the promises and pledges they’ve made to the community outside of just a renewable energy project. But this is a really key component.”

Most prominently, RePower Madison wants MGE to roll back their increases to fixed charges on monthly bills over the past few years. Solar proponents say such fixed charge increases — implemented by a number of Wisconsin utilities — make it much harder for citizens to afford rooftop solar. RePower Madison has also been calling for the utility to develop a more robust citizen engagement process and “community partnership.”

“There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, but this will obviously improve MGE’s grade on the next report card,” which the advocacy group puts out each year, Brey said. In 2016, RePower gave MGE a C for renewable energy and a D for customer satisfaction.

The night before MGE’s announcement, RePower Madison held a community forum where they called on the new incoming MGE CEO, Jeffrey Keebler, to be a national leader on renewable energy. Keebler has been with the company since 1995.

“He could do that by saying he’s committed to making MGE 100 percent renewable energy,” Brey said. “You could put this project in context as one step toward that bigger goal. It would take some time, but it’s important to see him lay out that vision, so we can get started on it.”

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