Should Madison’s local power company be encouraging more people to add solar panels to their homes?

Would consumers let smart thermostats be installed that could switch off their air conditioners, briefly, on hot summer days when power demand soars?

And how should electric rates be set in a way that’s fair to all customers?

Those are some of the questions likely to be discussed as Madison Gas & Electric launches a series of meetings it is calling “community conversations” that will begin later this month.

To prepare for the sessions, MGE has put together a 30-page discussion guide, hoping people will read it and get a better understanding of the issues facing the utility industry.

“Technology is changing,” CEO Gary Wolter said. “For 100 years, we’ve made electricity by spinning a magnet inside a coil of wires,” he said, describing, in simplified terms, how the turbine in a power plant creates electricity.

Today, Wolter said, there are all sorts of devices that can generate or store power, or improve energy efficiency.

For example, a control panel in a home “would automatically know the cheapest time to charge your electric vehicle or cycle your refrigerator or air conditioner off and on to reduce peak demand on the electric system and thereby reduce costs for everyone,” the guide says.

The guide asks consumers to weigh in on how to accomplish MGE’s five objectives: To give customers the energy options they want; help customers control their energy use and cost; move MGE to “a more environmentally sustainable” energy supply; provide a reliable electric grid; and make sure customers receive services and share costs equitably.

The guide is “a good start,” said Kira Loehr, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board.

“What’s most important is that we need a dialogue. We need to be addressing the changes that are happening with decreased electricity consumption ... and trying to find new and different ways for customers to control their energy use, manage their bills and continue to have reliable service,” Loehr said.

Focus groups are expected to begin by late July. As many as 50 to 75 groups of about a dozen customers at a time will convene, with the discussions moderated by professional facilitators from the Madison area.

About 3,000 customers were chosen at random and asked to participate. Sessions will continue into September or October, said Don Edwards, CEO of Justice & Sustainability Associates, the Washington, D.C., consultant group that designed the effort and will coordinate it.

MGE promised to hold the community conversations after public outcry last summer over the utility’s proposal to restructure its electric rates, raising the fixed portion of the charge from the current $10.50 a month to $67 a month by 2017. Later, MGE moderated the request, asking for fixed charges of $19 a month, with a slight decrease in the price for power actually used, and state regulators approved that plan.

RePower Madison, the citizen group that opposed MGE’s initial proposal, is unsatisfied with MGE’s progress on community participation. RePower has set up a web page for consumers to sign up for focus groups, saying it will forward the names to Justice & Sustainability Associates.

RePower spokesman Mitch Brey said the talks shouldn’t be limited to a small percentage of MGE’s 143,000 electricity customers. “Don’t you think they should extend (an invitation to) the conversations to all customers?” he said.

After the focus groups, a town hall-style meeting is likely to be held “to deliberate further” over goals that surface in the groups, Edwards said. The results should provide “pretty explicit guidance” to MGE executives, he said.

“Our plan is to have information to share about our next long-term energy plan and our next steps for building a community energy company of the future no later than June 2016, MGE spokeswoman Dana Brueck said.

The discussion guide will be available online at by Monday. It will be promoted through bill inserts and social media. In addition to group sessions, written comments also are welcome, said MGE senior vice president Lynn Hobbie.

“We are trying to provide multiple ways for customers to find this information, read it, and give us their views,” she said.

CUB’s Loehr said there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. “That’s why we need the conversations. We don’t want any customers left behind,” she said.


Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.