A New Take on Energy Conservation in the Heartland
Rural counties in Northeastern Iowa are capitalizing on an old model of local control to harness their energy future.
Most people are familiar with the concept of renewable energy, but Iowa farmer and resource conservationist Andy Johnson wants to renew something else — a policy vehicle that will allow his county and potentially thousands of others to make community driven investments in energy savings and clean energy production. Specifically, Johnson and others are working to apply the concept of soil and water conservation districts to energy, and they have created the nation’s first “Energy District” in rural Winneshiek County.
Johnson seized upon the idea after moving back to his family dairy and Christmas tree farm outside of Decorah in 2007.
“There were many conversations happening here about how to move the community forward as a whole around sustainable energy, and many entities had been doing important work already” he said. “The model of a replicable, locally led change agent entity, based on the soil and water conservation districts, was my contribution to that discussion.”
Johnson’s idea is rooted in history. After the Dust Bowl decimated America’s heartland in the 1930s, the federal government started a new agency, Soil Conservation Service, with the goal of demonstrating soil and water conservation practices to local farmers. They quickly learned that farmers didn’t want the feds telling them what to do, so they worked with states to create a unique vehicle for local leadership and partnership: local soil and water conservation districts. These districts gave residents the capacity to create legal entities with elected members, which could then oversee the implementation of conservation activities while simultaneously tapping state, federal and private funds and technical expertise. The idea of soil and water conservation districts took off, and spread to practically every county in the United States. Now, 80 years later, Johnson sees the model they used as a perfect vehicle for focusing on energy conservation.
“Back in the 30s, federal conservationists realized that when it came to private land management, they needed to tap into local leadership in every county,” says Johnson. “They needed a locally run entity that could partner with state and federal government, and use their powers of persuasion to bring community members along.”
The Winneshiek Energy District, a standalone nonprofit organization where Johnson serves as executive director, was created in 2010. The organization concentrated during the early years on developing three key strategies to see if their work could have an impact. One was conducting high-quality comprehensive energy audits and plans for homes, farms and businesses, helping energy users understand the opportunities for energy savings and the steps to take to realize them. Johnson calculates that nearly 90% of businesses in Decorah that participated in energy audits, followed through with the energy efficiency recommendations. That 90% conversion rate compares to only 10% of conversions from energy audits performed by many utility companies, says Johnson. In many cases, this has also led to an increase in investments in solar arrays by many of those same businesses.
A second strategy was an effort to create an energy marketplace in which multiple actors are in place to make both energy efficiency services and green energy production a profitable economic enterprise. Winneshiek Energy District worked with community colleges to train local contractors, and educated local lenders, retailers, and others to ensure all players were aligned and understood the economic benefits of energy savings and alternative energy generation. In just a few years, Winneshiek County went from having a handful of local solar systems installed to having hundreds. Now the county has 10 times the amount of locally owned solar per customer than the rest of Iowa. Winneshiek Energy District supports that market by providing solar assessments and economic impact evaluations.
The third strategy has been to advocate for energy-friendly policies, such as net metering and how state funds earmarked for energy efficiency are used.
The economic benefits have motivated community members to participate in energy efforts just as much – if not more so – than environmental ones.
“The economic benefits are tremendous, even if you don’t want to talk about climate change,” says Johnson. “It’s a ‘green meets green’ approach.”
Once the Winneshiek Energy District saw solid successes in their own community, they began talking with neighboring counties about replicating the model. Clayton County became the second in the state to create an Energy District in 2016, Howard County formed the third in 2017, and Dubuque County started one in 2018.
Ultimately, Johnson wants the state of Iowa to create authorizing legislation similar to soil and water conservation districts for energy districts. “That would bring authority, credibility, and local control over implementation, and give local communities the ability to attract and leverage public and private resources,” says Johnson. “Most states have programs that fund energy efficiency and support distributed generation, which Energy Districts should be authorized to tap into to provide energy analysis and planning for all.”
Although rural areas may use less energy than urban centers in total, Johnson says it’s no surprise that the notion of Energy Districts emerged from Iowa farm country.
“I think this effort is growing out of rural in part because rural communities often still have a geographic sense of community, of coming together in a specific place and time around important issues. There is a strength in local leadership, a sense of connection that can bridge ideologies. The soil and water conservation districts also grew out of rural needs, but they expanded to include urban areas as well. I think the Energy District model is even more universally applicable.”
Betsey Russell is a writer and philanthropy consultant. She recently visited Northeastern Iowa as part of a rural philanthropy research project headquartered at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Her novel, Other People’s Money, which she describes as a “philanthropic thriller,” is available on Amazon.