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Tackling Sustainability Issues

By Matt Stout

As issues around climate change have intensified, the City of Madison has grown particularly interested in increasing its sustainability, especially in the 21st century. In 2004, the mayor proclaimed a city-wide emphasis on solar energy. Since then, Epic Systems, a local healthcare software company, has created two major solar fields with a combined total of over 8,500 panels, and local businesses and homeowners have started installing panels on their roofs as well. Madison was even named one of 25 up-and-coming Solar America Cities back in 2007.

Since then, the City of Madison has continued to progress in its focus on sustainability. Some of the simplest steps toward sustainability are being taken on a large scale throughout the entire city. There is an abundance of support for local food with the Farmers Market on Capitol Square. Additionally, Madison has greatly increased awareness of the proper collection and disposal of hazardous waste and the use of recyclable and reusable materials, which according to the 2012 Environmental Health Report Card, has significantly improved. There has also been an emphasis on installing protected bike lanes, like the one on University Avenue, to promote the use of alternative transportation. With about 6% of all commuters in Madison using bikes over motor transportation, Madison has been listed as number 7 in the top 50 biker-friendly cities in America. However, the City of Madison is doing much more than just creating these small-scale changes to sustain the environment.

Cool Choices, a non-profit company that promotes sustainability within the work environment, is making a big impact by encouraging small steps. Raj Shukla, the director of programs at Cool Choices and chairperson of the Sustainable Madison Committee, says, “[Cool Choices’] work is about changing individual behaviors, and that means helping people to voluntarily choose to do things that are going to reduce their carbon emissions.” In a study done by Cool Choices, about 90 percent of people think that sustainability is important in their work place, and about 75 percent say sustainability is important to them personally. However, only 45 percent of people think other people care about sustainability. “That’s the big problem in creating a culture shift: getting people to understand that other people care,” says Shukla. In an attempt to create a culture surrounding sustainability, Cool Choices targets the normative behavior that is innate in all humans; like high school peer pressure, they are trying to make sustainability something that the “cool kids” do. Cool Choices acts as a sort of online card game. Taking simple actions in your own life to conserve water or energy or to reduce your carbon emissions earns you points, and you can use those points to compete against coworkers. This drives home the idea that even small actions can make a big impact.

The Sustainable Madison Committee does a lot of work with and around the city, not only promoting sustainability, but also enforcing it. Shukla states that the committee’s role is “to try to encourage companies like MG&E to be as aggressive as they can in the short term,” pushing them to implement more environmentally-conscious actions. MG&E (Madison Gas and Electric) is the city’s main power supplier, and therefore is one of the city’s biggest concerns with regards to sustainability. To the dismay of the Sustainable Madison Committee, in 2014, MG&E issued a new rate plan in which each consumer pays one fixed rate, regardless of how much energy is used or not used. “This plan really discouraged conservation, and pushed things in the opposite direction we wanted to go,” says David Ahrens, another member of the Sustainable Madison Committee. Not only was this new plan bad for sustainability in Madison, but it left the community infuriated. Even members who worked for MG&E were irate. “It was the first time that the city challenged MG&E,” says David Ahrens. Gary Walters, the CEO of MG&E, was forced to respond, and the company modified their proposal.

In 2015, MG&E released their “Energy 2030” plan, which detailed the company’s plans to reduce carbon emissions, increase the use of renewable energy sources, and encourage energy efficiency and conservation throughout the community. Although this was a step in the right direction, companies like MG&E are going to need to start considering alternative forms of energy as the threat of climate change becomes more intense and as technology continues to develop and shift toward solar, wind, and battery power sources. For MG&E, a company that has been doing the same thing for more than 100 years, this could be a significant challenge. “Maybe they should consider solar installations or a storage grid in order to have a future,” says Ahrens. Shukla compared MG&E to the now-outdated land line telephones, and the changing technology and focus on climate change to the rise of cell phones, begging the question, “Is MG&E going to be able to adjust quickly enough to take advantage of technology that is evolving very quickly…to remain relevant?”

So, while the city and groups like the Sustainable Madison Committee and Cool Choices are doing everything they can to create a more environmentally friendly community, the question remains: what is in store for the future of sustainability in Madison? There has been talk about the possibility of an energy grid supply as technology begins to revolve more and more around batteries and solar energy. Ahrens mentions a more relevant option for the near future of Madison: a Bus Rapid Transit System. This would essentially consist of large express buses that have fixed stop sites with platforms, control the traffic lights ahead of them, and often have their own dedicated lanes. While the dedicated lanes are a major variable in the matter of cost, Ahrens says that “each of the stopping points would become a viable commercial node. They develop simply because of the thousands of people coming and going through these stop points.” This could become a significant part of the economic development as well as the sustainability development of the city. There is still ample room for improvement, but Madison’s future in sustainability is certainly promising.

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