How is Madison fighting climate change? – Isthmus

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The pavilion in Madison’s Tenney Park hosts ice skaters in the winter and wedding parties in the summer. On top of all of the activity are solar panels that may go unnoticed, but they are a powerful part of the structure, providing 80% of the building’s electricity. 

The city of Madison completed the Tenney Park solar panel installation in 2023 as part of Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s Climate Forward agenda. The Climate Forward agenda is one prong in the city’s campaign to address climate change. The city is also implementing strategies identified in the 100% Renewable Madison report described by Jessica Price, sustainability and resilience manager for the city, as a “science-based plan for reaching our energy goals for city operations and guidance for supporting renewable energy community-wide.” 

Additionally, the city is working to update its Sustainability Plan, which will “also include goals and actions to advance climate mitigation and adaptation,” says Price.

The impact of climate change is being increasingly felt locally and around the world, with more wildfires, flooding and record breaking temperatures. This winter in Wisconsin was one of the warmest on record. 

Experts at the 2023 United Nations Climate Change conference made clear that 43% of global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by 2030 to limit global warming. Rhodes-Conway was at the conference and says one takeaway was that local governments are becoming critical in the fight against climate change. “There’s an increasing awareness that the national governments are not going to be able to meet their climate pollution reduction goals without [local] governments taking action, in [particular] city governments taking action,” the mayor says in an interview.

Madison’s goals fit in with Dane County’s efforts to address climate change, and both Rhodes-Conway and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi say it’s the government’s responsibility to provide a roadmap on how to fight climate change.

“The solutions exist,” says Parisi. “We’ve chosen to prioritize this and implement the solutions that are out there and the beautiful thing is, not [only] is that the right thing for the environment, [but it] is also the fiscally responsible thing to do.”

Last year for Earth Week, Parisi announced that Dane County had met its goal of using 100% renewable electricity in all county facilities. The county’s ongoing projects include installing solar panels to county facilities and increasing the use of electric vehicles for the county. 

Says Parisi: “We’re going to take care of our own house first before we tell other people what they should be doing.”

Rhodes-Conway announced her Climate Forward agenda on Earth Day in 2021, noting that there is a “scientific imperative to nearly halve our emissions by 2030, and we must ramp up our work to meet that goal.” 

The goals included meeting 100% of the city’s municipal operations electricity needs with renewable energy; accelerating the replacement of thousands of street lights with LED bulbs; and continuing to purchase electric, hybrid, biodiesel, and other low-emission vehicles. 

In the area of transit, the plan called for the city to construct a bus rapid transit system with clean electric buses and require new developments to “incorporate features that help future residents and workers get around without a car.” The city also pledged to work with community partners to implement energy upgrades in naturally occurring affordable housing units.

Four years later, how is Madison doing? 

Price says the city is now sourcing 75% of electricity from renewable sources for city operations. There are three all-electric buses in use and when the new Bus Rapid Transit is implemented this year it will use all-electric buses. In addition, there are 125 fully electric and 160 hybrid-electric vehicles in the city’s fleet. Also Madison has maintained its platinum status as a bike-friendly city since 2015.

Solar panels have been installed at 38 city facilities. Together each year they produce an estimated 2,469 MWh of clean energy, and reduce the city’s carbon footprint by about 1,879 metric tons — the equivalent of taking 447 gas-powered cars off the road. 

“Really, there’s a lot happening right now,” says Price. 

One challenge for the city is finding heavy-duty electric vehicle options for garbage trucks and snowplows, for instance. But Price says the EPA has set new standards for greenhouse gas emission for heavy duty vehicles, which will help bring more climate-friendly options to the market.

Emily Park, the co-executive director of 350 Wisconsin, a grassroots group dedicated to environmental justice and climate change mitigation, is pleased with the city’s efforts and says it is on track to meet the 2030 goal for cutting greenhouse emissions with these initiatives in place. 

“Many of our members are Madison residents, and we’re proud to have a city government that is setting a strong example for climate action,” she says.

But Park says the city’s efforts to achieve its climate goals are “hampered by a number of state and federal government policies.” State building codes, for instance, prohibit municipalities from requiring private builders to achieve energy efficiency standards that are higher than the state codes. “This is especially problematic because the state codes are substantially lower than the current international building codes,” she says. 

The city’s $27 million budget deficit could also impede progress. “At this early stage of the budgeting process, we haven’t identified specific projects that are on hold,” says Price. “But if we aren’t able to adopt new revenues to cover the gap, the magnitude of the gap would have wide-ranging impacts.”

To help the broader Madison community achieve energy savings, the city works closely with partners on other programs. 

The Efficiency Navigator program, for instance, provides free energy efficiency and other upgrades to small- and medium-sized multifamily housing. In the first year, the program upgraded 88 apartments in 13 buildings on the north side and southwest side, lowering energy bills by $300 to $500 a year for each building. 

“Anything that we can be doing to improve efficiency in residential buildings and reduce that energy burden gives us that win-win situation,” says Price.

Park says her group is glad the city is taking a “justice-centric” approach to its work on climate, but says more resources need to be devoted to this program. “More new energy efficient city-financed low-income housing” is also needed, she adds.

Through the GreenPower program, the city trains people in underrepresented groups in the trades to gain their solar certification. The Tenney Park pavilion panels were installed by GreenPower participants. 

“I think it’s just a fantastic program and we’re really excited about how successful it’s been,” says Rhodes-Conway. 

As the city now works towards updating its Sustainability Plan, Rhodes-Conway is optimistic it can “meet that 2030 goal. The next goal is the community-wide 2050 goal. That’s where we need people’s help.” 

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