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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 0.0° F  Fair
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How green is my government?
City, county are often pioneers in smart new approaches
One of
the generators that Dane County uses to turn methane gas to electricity
One of the generators that Dane County uses to turn methane gas to electricity

Mike DiMaggio dons a pair of protective earphones before leading the way into a small building at Dane County's Rodefeld landfill, on Highway 12/18. Inside, four huge generators rumble noisily as each one burns methane gas, converting it into electricity. A network of pipes brings in the gas, which is sucked from the landfill by small wells scattered among the decomposing garbage.

"We sell the electricity to Madison Gas & Electric," explains DiMaggio, Dane County's solid waste manager. "They use it for local businesses - they're powered by the landfill."

Methane is a greenhouse gas that occurs naturally when organic matter rots. Most landfills simply burn the gas off, but in Wisconsin, it's more common to convert it to electricity. Dane County, which bought its first generator in 1994, nets about $1.3 million a year from selling the gas. A few years ago, the county added a similar system to an old landfill in Verona, which closed in 1987. The methane from that site powers the nearby Badger Prairie nursing home.

"It's taking what used to be a problem and making it an asset," says DiMaggio.

In fact, most government bodies are searching for ways to be more green. The Madison school district is replacing inefficient lighting in its gymnasiums and installing new windows at Toki Middle School.

In the state Legislature, Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison) has introduced a bill to require carbon emissions by utilities and manufacturers to be returned to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The Legislature ended its regular session for the year without voting on the bill.

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk credits the county with leading the way on being green. When she took office in 1997, she ordered the county's first energy audit. "Now it seems commonplace, but 11 years ago it wasn't," says Falk. "This was way before anyone knew about inconvenient truths."

The county was the first in the state to sign up to track its carbon use and trade carbon credits on the open market. And she sees her proposal for a commuter train linking Sun Prairie with Middleton via downtown Madison as part of being more environmentally conscious - despite the controversy over how to pay for it.

"We don't do this because we like the political fighting," says Falk. "We do it because it's a worthy fight to win."

Earlier this week, the city of Madison invited its employees to hear a presentation by Karl-Henrik Robert, the founder of the Natural Step program.

"It's to get them jazzed about the Natural Step," says Jeanne Hoffman, the city's facilities and sustainability manager. "To hear about it from the guy who came up with the idea."

The program encourages employees to consider the earth's limited resources when making decisions about city business. Thus the city now buys office furniture made from recycled material or which is itself recyclable, and city workers use both sides of office paper. About 140 city workers have been trained in the program; many attend a monthly meeting where they brainstorm other ways to achieve energy efficiency.

The program is not mandatory, but Hoffman says, "There are many staff who want to do this anyway."

The city has also put together a top 10 list of green priorities. One item is a "zero-waste initiative" to reduce waste by Madison residents as much as 65% by the year 2010. George Dreckmann, the city's recycling coordinator, recently flew to San Francisco to see how that city uses an automated system to collect food and yard waste from residents, which is then turned into compost.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz wants to implement a similar program here, says Hoffman. "It's a huge project to undertake - bigger than automated recycling was."

Madison recently received a $550,000 grant, including $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy, to promote solar energy. Next month, the city will begin offering residents free access to a consultant who can advise them on solar energy - everything from which panels to choose, to how much of a federal tax credit they can expect.

"There are a lot of people in the city interested in solar who don't know where to go," says Hoffman. As of 2007 Madison had about 100 solar thermal systems, which heat water. There are an estimated 30 solar panel systems, which generate 148,800 kilowatt-hours annually. "Our hope is to double the amount," says Hoffman.

She wants being green to become so ingrained in city employees and residents that her job as sustainability manager is no longer necessary.

"Wouldn't that be cool?" she laughs. "If the city could get to a level that it's so green, it just becomes institutionalized. Right on!"

Dane County has its own set of green initiatives, including making the new Badger Prairie nursing home energy-efficient. But Falk's eyes truly light up when she begins to talk about manure.

She recently went on a tour of farms in Dodge County where the farmers use manure digesters. The machines process cow manure, turning it into fertilizer or burning it for electricity.

"It's just really so very cool," enthuses Falk.

Dane County has 49,000 milking cows, which produce an estimated 790,000 gallons of manure per day. Farmers typically try to get rid of the waste by using it as fertilizer and spreading it on their fields. But during storms, the manure can run off, polluting nearby waterways.

Processing manure in a digester would help farmers safely dispose of the waste, while allowing them to compost some for fertilizer and selling the rest to produce electricity.

"It could be the most exciting thing to happen for water quality," says Falk. "And there's no odor when you do this, because you've processed the manure. So the neighbors are happy."

The county is looking for ways to implement the new technology. Farmers could purchase the digesters individually, or the county could set up a regional system to help dispose of manure. Falk's 2008 budget includes $80,000 to study how digesters can be used in Dane County.

Protecting the environment has been a mission of Falk's ever since she became one of the state's first environmental lawyers. She sees being green as a duty for local officials - and for residents.

"Life is a gift," says Falk. "And how we treat the planet is a responsibility."

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