A Whole New Way to Get Clean Energy

A few years ago a small handful of people in Decorah, Iowa started getting together to talk about energy. The mayor, a county supervisor, a city council member, a local bank, and representatives from Luther College sat down with other locals who were interested in reducing their carbon footprint and improving the city’s energy performance. Their discussions led to the conclusion that a local delivery system for clean energy products is the missing link, and casual efforts wouldn’t be enough. Paid leadership was needed for a community-wide effort.

One participant, Andy Johnson (whose father Paul Johnson is a local farmer, former Iowa DNR director, and a current Iowa Environmental Protection Commissioner), drew on his long experience with USDA to suggest a model along the lines of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and soil and water conservation districts. These districts emerged from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and were the key “local” connection in what rapidly became a locally led but nationwide struggle to combat soil erosion, protecting both natural resources and economic health of landowners and communities. This is the model Decorah settled on, creating what they believe to be a nationwide first: a county-wide energy district.

Andy is now Director of Winneshiek Energy District (named after the county, because that’s the target scale), “a new (2010) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting stewardship and sustainability by focusing on all things energy, with all individuals and organizations willing to partner, as far as our time and energy (and funding) allows.” The first major projects are:

Energy Improvement Cost-Share – Robust home energy audits, technical & planning assistance, and tax rebate assistance.

Direct Install with Energy Corps -Low-cost energy saving items installed for residential and business customers.

Home Energy Monitoring – Real time home energy tracking with The Energy Detective.

Local Carbon Markets – Carbon offsets that are also local clean energy investments.

Sustainable Decorah – A community action plan for a sustainable future.

Winneshiek’s local utilities are Alliant/Interstate Power & Light for the Decorah area, Hawkeye REC for most of rural Winneshiek County, and Black Hills Energy for gas, but so far there hasn’t been great buy-in by the utilities. An Iowa Power Fund grant got the project started , and Winneshiek ED’s growing auditing/cost-share and direct install programs are now funded via stimulus funds. As the nonprofit’s reputation grows, they hope to increase fees and grow their partnerships to become entirely self-sustaining.

One source of funding that has just gone live is a local carbon market selling “Oneota Tags.” The concept is pretty simple. A carbon calculator on the Winneshiek ED website lets residents (or anyone – you, for example) calculate the carbon footprint of various activities and buy Oneota Tags that fund activities of Winneshiek ED.

It will take locally appropriate efforts all over the country to respond to the clean energy, low carbon challenge, but this is a model that can serve diverse energy realities across the country. Let a thousand energy districts bloom!

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One Response to A Whole New Way to Get Clean Energy

  1. Jill Cliburn says:

    What a wonderful example of community-based collaboration! I like hearing that organizers involved the local utilities. We, at Clean Energy Ambassadors, will have to learn more and post details on our site. Also, anyone who was taken by the idea of direct-installs for low-cost measures can sign up for our free Webinar on that topic November 15! Thanks, Carrie.

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