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Getting Coal out of our Kohlrabi: Tackling Climate Change, Co-op Style

New solar panels on the Willy East roofInstalling the new solar panels at Willy EastMadison is powered bycoal. Yep, that’s right, the notorious climate-change contributor responsible for wide-scale air and water pollution is the primary fuel used by Madison’s electric utility—Madison Gas & Electric. That means for all your amazing local buying power spent at the Co-op that supports local farmers and producers, a portion of your money is also going to MG&E to buy and burn coal from Wyoming. (We also get some power through MG&E’s Windpower Program.) Here’s how your CoLifting the new solar panels onto the roof at Willy East-op has set out to change that, and reduce its carbon footprint by going solar with the help of another local Co-op.

Do you want coal in your coffee?

Electricity is indispensable in the grocery business. It keeps local produce cool and fresh; it keeps freezers humming day and night; and most important to me right now as a sleep-deprived new mom, electricity ensures that I can always get a hot cup of coffee when I stop at the Co-op. Despite this reliance on electricity to keep the Co-op running, I hope we can all agree that a coal-fired Co-op is not what we are striving for.

In fact, it’s anathema to the Co-op’s highest purpose as articulated in our governance “ends” policies to “be at the forefront of a cooperative and just society that: has a robust local economy built around equitable relationships; nourishes and enriches our community and environment; and has a culture of respect, generosity, and authenticity.” A coal-fired Co-op threatens our commitment to local economies since coal comes from thousands of miles away, it exacerbates inequalities for communities near coal plants that bear the brunt of toxic coal pollution, and it devastates rather than enriches our environment. 

I have multiple interests in more closely matching the Co-op’s electric mix to its values. In addition to being a proud Co-op owner, I am the Vice President of the Co-op’s Board of Directors and together with my colleagues on the Board, I am responsible for ensuring the Co-op achieves the “ends” goals stated above. In my professional life I am the Deputy Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, and in that role I have built expertise in the power sector, including national and regional trends. Without diving too far down the electric-sector rabbit hole, here’s what I know: MG&E’s energy mix is abysmal. In 2015, two huge coal-fired power plants supplied about 50 percent of the electricity sold to MG&E customers, including Willy Street Co-op. Another 37 precent of MG&E’s power was a fossil fuel medley of mostly coal and gas, and less than 13 percent was clean energy. Fortunately, I also know that it doesn’t have to be this way. Nationwide, coal use is down to 33 percent and plummeting, there are 10 entire states that are (or will soon be) entirely coal-free, and cities across the country have announced plans to go 100 percent clean, proving that kicking coal out of our Co-op and our city is entirely achievable.

Hello sunshine!

Solar is the antidote to coal. It is local, sustainable, and keeps more of your dollars invested in our community, all of which circle back to ensuring the Co-op achieves its “ends” goals. Willy Street Co-op and Legacy Solar Co-op worked together to arrange a one-two punch to reduce the Co-op’s carbon footprint. First, a large-scale LED lighting retrofit at Willy East was designed to reduce the Co-op’s overall power needs. Second, Full Spectrum Solar was hired to install a solar array on the Co-op roof to generate clean, carbon-free electricity for store operations that also acts to offset the Co-op’s energy purchases from MG&E. (A 2014 severe storm damaged our existing solar panels.)

For those of you who like numbers, here are the stats on energy and carbon pollution savings from Kurt Reinhold at Legacy Solar Co-op: 

“Swapping out 228 fluorescent lamps for LED lamps saves the store nearly 15,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. The solar on the roof will generate over 25,000 kWh a year. Over 25 years, this project will save over 1.6 million pounds of CO2 and conserve over 20 million gallons of water from the effects of thermal pollution and evaporation through the burning of coal used by MGE to supply the store electricity.”

The solar panels are also projected to save the Co-op money. According to Kurt at Legacy Solar Co-op, going solar will save the Co-op $140,000 by allowing it to generate a portion of its own power for a fraction of the price it pays MG&E. 

Think Global; Shop Local

There is no doubt that these steps alone won’t do the trick to tackle the global challenge of climate change, but swapping out coal for clean energy is one of the most important things we can do locally to reduce carbon pollution, not to mention the mercury, soot, and smog pollution that comes from coal plants. As Co-op owners, we know that small steps, when done in cooperation, can make real change. After all, Willy Street Co-op started as a buyers’ club made up of people looking to have more control over their food, and in its 40 years, the Co-op has grown to three retail stores and more than $50 million in annual sales. If we all start to think locally and sustainably about our electricity, and how to take control over how it is produced while keeping more of our money invested locally, we could kick coal out of Madison. 

I probably don’t need to tell you that we don’t have much time to waste. The first six months of 2016 were the hottest months ever recorded, historic floods battered the gulf region this summer marking the eighth “500-year” weather event since May 2015, autumn brings wildfire season to the drought-stricken west, and the spread of Zika is linked to our changing climate. At the Sierra Club, we often talk about how we may be the last generation that stands a fighting chance against the worst effects of climate change, and that we cannot afford to sit idly by. I am so proud of our Co-op for stepping up to the challenge, and to model the values that we share as Co-op Owners who know that together, we can accomplish great things.

Community CHIPPaul O'Flanagan, AttorneyHuman NatureWilly Street Co-op cateringSheila Landsverk, Realtor

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