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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 53.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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'An offensive invasion of privacy'
Is MGE going too far in posting customer usage data online?
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Herrick says MGE's searchable database lets 'anyboyd on the planet' find data on its customers.
Herrick says MGE's searchable database lets 'anyboyd on the planet' find data on its customers.

James Herrick of Madison doesn't think it's anybody else's business how much gas and electricity he uses at home and was surprised to find this information online, where "anybody on the planet" can obtain it, anonymously.

And so, on seeing Madison Gas and Electric's searchable database of its residential customers he fired off an e-mail:

"Is there small print in my MGE service agreement that says I authorize you to release my natural gas and electricity purchase information to anyone with Internet access, or is there a law requiring utility companies to make this information publicly available?

MGE, in response, explained that the state Public Service Commission does indeed mandate (PSC 134.05 [5]) that utilities provide on request "either the average consumption for the prior 12-month period or figures reflecting the highest and lowest consumption amounts for the previous 12 months." (MGE gives both, and includes the cost.) This is done so people seeking to buy homes or rent apartments have some basis for gauging energy costs.

"We can appreciate that you may not agree with this requirement," wrote some nameless MGE worker bee. "However, it is something we are required to do as a public utility. It is somewhat similar to having your property assessment information available online through your local municipality."

MGE is not required to post this information online, and spokesman Steve Kraus confirms "we're the only utility in the state" to do so, beginning in January 2007. "We've received a lot of compliments from customers for this service," says Kraus, noting that folks around here tend to be "highly wired" and Web-savvy. (The e-mail to Herrick also cited "labor savings.")

The posted data is the same as what has long been given to people who call. Kraus says the utility does not make similar disclosures for commercial or industrial customers, nor does it reveal any customer's payment history.

Herrick, a retired city of Madison Housing Operations employee, still objects to this "offensive invasion of privacy" and has lodged a complaint with the PSC. He says prospective homebuyers seeking to know his energy costs "could ask me for a release." (Besides, as Kraus concedes, actual costs can vary widely, based on lifestyle.)

On reviewing the PSC rule, Herrick noted that MGE was going beyond what's required, revealing the actual dates of high- and low-usage periods. He apprised MGE that this could help burglars identify houses whose occupants may "be away for the same long periods every year." To illustrate his point, he looked up several acquaintances who head South each year and was able to pinpoint when their energy use dropped: "Would a customer want a potential burglar to have this information?"

Kraus says MGE took Herrick's suggestion to heart, feeling that "if there's even the slightest, most remote chance something like this would happen," it would rather err on the side of caution. And so, as of last week, it stopped posting the dates of high and low usage.

MGE also pulled Herrick's data from its Web site. Kraus says it will do the same for other customers on request. But this information will still be given to those who call, as the PSC rule requires.

Herrick, for one, would like this rule reversed. As he told MGE, "I'm afraid this is an instance where you have gone way overboard on attempts at customer service."

Taking stock of our trees

Awhile back, Madison City Forester Marla Eddy was talking at a Tenney-Lapham neighborhood event about the emerald ash borer, the tiny beetle now laying waste to ash trees in Michigan and Illinois. She wanted residents to know what will happen when - that's the word Eddy is using these days, not if - it hits Madison.

Eddy, using photos, pointed out that entire blocks of neighborhood street trees, and 12 of 22 trees in James Madison Park, are ash. "They were quite shocked," she says.

Despite ongoing efforts to educate the public and curb the transport of firewood that may contain the bug, Eddy says authorities "would be surprised, greatly, if we didn't discover it in Wisconsin this year or next year."

Eventually, every ash tree in town may have to be replaced, a task complicated by the city's lack of a tree inventory. Right now, Eddy doesn't know how many of the city's 100,000 street trees are ash, or where they are.

But this month, thanks to a $25,000 state grant matched by the city, Eddy's staff is launching a pilot inventory of three neighborhoods - Tenney-Lapham, Monona Bay by Penn Park and the Regent neighborhood by Hoyt Park - using a mapping program based on aerial photos. Crews will log the species, diameter and estimated value of every tree in the terraces along streets. The inventory's cost is about $2.80 per tree.

The pilot should be complete in October, and Eddy is seeking additional funds to keep going: "In about four or five years, we can have the entire city done." She envisions putting the data online, so citizens can look up individual trees and report problems like broken limbs.<

And, of course, it will come in handy for managing deadly insects and diseases when - not if - they strike.

Shingles club

In 2006, the Dane County's Rodefeld landfill took in 219,888 tons of garbage. That's a whopping 33% increase over 2005's total of 165,144 tons. What happened?

"Shingles," explains Mike DiMaggio, the county's solid waste manager. "We had a hail event [in April 2006] and we were just getting pounded with shingles. I think every roof in Dane County has been replaced."

Indeed, the amount of construction and demolition waste shot up from 72,000 tons in 2005 to 120,000 tons last year, a 66% increase. Shingles.

But help is on the way. In March, the Bruce Company launched a shingle-recycling operation at its Verona facility. The shingles are crushed to granular form and contaminants removed, then an aggregate and activator is added to create a cold-mix asphalt.

"Right now, we're averaging over 100 tons [of shingles] a day," says Bruce Company recycling division manager Brian Mullen, who calls the operation "a natural fit" for a firm that needs asphalt for golf cart and bike paths. When a new facility opens later this year, production will ramp up to 250 tons per day.

That's enough capacity to keep every shingle out of the county's landfill. But already, the Bruce Company is getting deliveries from other counties and Illinois. "Word is traveling fast," says Mullen.

Yin and yang

Dick Wagner of Transport 2020, on whether Dane County residents will - if the state Legislature authorizes a Regional Transit Authority - agree to a half-cent sales-tax hike for transit purposes like commuter rail: "I'm optimistic that people will listen and say, 'This is our future.'" County Board Chair Scott McDonell, another key proponent of this plan, on the same: "It's not going to be easy."

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