Member Spotlight

Richland Center, Wisconsin

Richland Center, Wis., is located on Hwy 14 between Madison and La Crosse. The city is home to businesses specializing in metal machining, food products, transportation and packaging. Shown here is the city's Municipal Building. 

City Utilities of Richland Center has big ideas on the ways in which a small town can be more environmentally responsible. 

The new, energy-efficient Richland Area Community Center and a new joint venture, Richland Center Renewable Energy, LLC (RCRE) (see story on p. 1), are the two most recent examples of the not-for-profit, locally owned utility’s role in forward-thinking community leadership.

With the utility’s active participation, the new community center incorporated greener, cost-saving features that will better serve area residents and save the city money for decades to come.

The center, which opened its doors in April, is believed to be the first commercial building in the state and among the first in the nation to be entirely lit by light-emitting diode (LED) lights. A new electric car-charging station in the parking lot offers a convenient place for recharging near the center, a park and the bike trail.

Richland Center's downtown is home to many historic buildings and storefronts.
Over the past few years, the utility has invested in other energy-saving upgrades as well. One example is the city’s hybrid electric bucket truck, purchased with the help of grant funds. Another is a solar-photovoltaic installation at City Hall, which generates 8.64 kilowatts, or 14,500 kilowatt-hours, of emissions-free electricity per year and supplies 10 percent of the building’s electricity needs. The solar panels’ output is monitored online, which helps to educate the public about the local use of renewable energy.

As a result, Richland Center businesses and residents are thinking more about sustainability, said Dale Bender, electric superintendent for the City Utilities of Richland Center.

“We’ve helped quite a few of our businesses and homes make better environmental, more energy-efficient choices, and that has worked out well for us,” Bender said. “We’ve been able to provide Commitment to Community dollars and other resources and to make a difference.”

Bender credits community leaders, including members of the Richland Center Utility Commission, for the kind of thinking that has made these projects possible.

“They look at things very progressively. They’re willing to take the risk to be out there leading instead of following,” he said.

High Standards 

Construction began in October 2011 on the 12,500 square-foot community/senior center. Richland Center received $1.79 million in federal funding for the center through the Community Development Block Grant-Emergency Assistance Program because of flooding around the previous community center. 

From the beginning, former Mayor Larry Fowler sought input from Bender and his staff to serve on a committee to study energy-efficiency options. After considering many ideas, the city decided to adhere closely to U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards but not to pursue certification, mainly because of cost considerations.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright, born in Richland Center in 1867, designed the A.D. German Warehouse that was constructed in 1915.  

Later, when contractor Mark Miller of Miller Electric suggested LED lighting, committee members worked quickly to make it happen. Bender and Energy Services Representative James Schwingle toured other facilities and met with lighting vendors to research options. The result is a state-of-the-art design, using fixtures right off the assembly line, all manufactured in Wisconsin. 

Every light, from the parking lot and street lights outside to the gymnasium-style multipurpose room, kitchen, and other gathering areas inside, uses energy-saving LED technology, designed to last 15 to 25 years. 

In addition to contributing Commitment to Community dollars, City of Richland Center Utilities secured funding and incentives from Focus on Energy and WPPI Energy to cover the additional $68,000 lighting costs.

In all, the building will be nearly 50 percent more energy efficient, cutting the previous center’s monthly utility bill in half. That translates to a payback period of less than eight years.

The electric utility donated four permanent electrical service sites for events around the perimeter of the center and secured approval for installing the electric vehicle fueling station in the parking lot. Its location halfway between La Crosse and Madison, in an area known to outdoor enthusiasts, made the station a logical choice for a city looking to promote green tourism.


Community Involvement

The City of Richland Center Utilities has worked on several other energy-efficiency projects in the community recently. The utility helped secure ENERGY STAR® school certification for both Doudna Elementary and Jefferson Elementary to recognize the significant energy savings they’ve achieved. 

Lighting projects in the community, at both Jones Chevrolet and at the Richland County Highway Shop, highlight a local commitment to energy efficiency. The utility provided incentives for both of those projects using Commitment to Community funds.

Through the utility’s Shared Savings program, senior living and care facility Schmitt Woodland Hills was able to secure funding for energy-saving upgrades. Another business, Schreiber Foods, Inc., took advantage of another utility program, and was awarded a $72,000 competitive grant for a major upgrade to its refrigeration system. 

A portion of City Utilities of Richland Center customers participate in the local utility’s Renewable Energy Program, by purchasing a total of more than 1,200 kilowatt-hours of renewable energy each month. Local customers also can apply for incentives from Wisconsin utilities’ statewide energy efficiency and renewable resource program, Focus on Energy, for efficient home and business improvements and appliances. 

Bender and his staff continually seek ways to educate the public – and the new community center offers a prime opportunity.

The utility has welcomed instructors and students from the University of Wisconsin-Richland, who will visit the center for coursework on energy efficiency, as well as Scout troops, 4-H groups and others.

City Utilities of Richland Center also looks for every opportunity to interact with local businesses. Bender participates in monthly business tours with the local economic development group and elected officials, speaks at business luncheons, and leads business owners on tours of the community center. Utility personnel make a point of visiting business and industrial utility customers and getting to know their key employees.

“We care very much about local businesses,” said Bender. “When they have a problem, I want them to know we’re here to help facilitate a solution. Our role is to have them be comfortable enough to ask us for help when they need it. I think that’s where the utility can really help with economic development.”

“There’s a sense of pride that I hope everyone in the city has, realizing that we’re a bit further along than what they think a little town is,” Bender said.

This Member Spotlight originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2012 Power Report newsletter. 

Richland Center fast facts

County: Richland

Number of utility customers: 2,913

Utility website:

City Utilities of Richland Center was established in 1904 by the community’s early founders. In 1937, the utility provided power to the Richland Electric Cooperative, the state’s first electricity co-op.

Richland Center is the birthplace of Frank Lloyd Wright and home of the state’s first municipal auditorium.

The company GTE – now Verizon/Frontier – got its start here.

The community hosts the Star Spangled Country music celebration each June, which draws about 7,500 visitors.

WPPI Energy member since 2002.