City Climate Corner

Winneshiek IA: Local Clean Energy Superpower

Episode Summary

You wouldn't expect a clean energy revolution to be emanating from a small county in northeastern Iowa. Yet, Winneshiek County has something like 10X the solar per capita deployments compared to the rest of Iowa, has one of the first green banks in the Midwest, and has become a model for about ten other counties. We interview Andy Johnson, Director of the Winneshiek Energy District, and learn why they've been so successful and their vision for how to scale their success.

Episode Notes

You wouldn't expect a clean energy revolution to be emanating from a small county in northeastern Iowa. Yet, Winneshiek County has something like 10X the solar per capita deployments compared to the rest of Iowa, has one of the first green banks in the Midwest, and has become a model for about ten other counties. We interview Andy Johnson, Director of the Winneshiek Energy District, and learn why they've been so successful and their vision for how to scale their success.


Episode Transcription


Abby Finis  00:02

Cities produce more than sixty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Big cities get a lot of attention, but most household emissions in the US actually come from communities outside urban cores, making them critical players in climate mitigation and climate justice. City Climate Corner explores how these small- and mid-sized cities are tackling climate change and moving toward an equitable and sustainable future. I'm Abby Finis.

Larry Kraft  00:23

And, I'm Larry Kraft. We're co-hosts for City Climate Corner. Hey, Abby. 

Abby Finis  00:31

Hey, Larry. 

Larry Kraft  00:32

So how's it going? What's new?

Abby Finis  00:34

Well, we're in I think a bit of a dark time for the country and some of these Supreme Court rulings that have come and those that are expected to come.

Larry Kraft  00:48

Yeah. I would agree. How do they impact climate?

Abby Finis  00:54

We're a few days after Roe v. Wade was essentially struck down and beyond just treating women like you know, human beings and equal on this planet, there are major climate implications when it comes to family planning and reproductive health. Project drawdown ranks it as the top ten in things that we can do to reduce our impact on emissions.

Larry Kraft  01:22

Right, called it up 68.9 Giga tons, talking about the importance of access to voluntary family planning, high quality education, these things do things like slow population growth, and a whole set of other things that help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Abby Finis  01:44

Yeah, and these numbers are global. But of course, that's no different in the US. And where a per person you know we have the largest greenhouse gas emissions globally. I think that taking this huge step back is obviously dangerous for so many women in this country, and especially impacting low income and women of color, disproportionately, it's also, you know, going to have that additional impact on climate and sustainable use of resources.

Larry Kraft  02:17

That's not the only one, right?

Abby Finis  02:22

Yeah. We can try to laugh about it, or else we might just cry. The ruling hasn't come yet as of this recording, but there's anticipation that the West Virginia vs. EPA ruling will be coming out probably this week. And that one is essentially looking at a hypothetical Clean Power Plan that the EPA hasn't even completed yet. Ruling in favor of West Virginia would essentially my understanding is gut the regulatory authority of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Larry Kraft  02:58

This would put at risk, the ability of the administration and the ability of our country to hit our climate goals.

Abby Finis  03:04

Right. If we're not obviously able to move legislatively, then there are some mechanisms in place administratively that the Biden administration and the Obama administration previously can put in place, but the judicial branches, using its powers, I suppose, to get in the way of that, which makes it all that much more important for these local efforts and to keep pushing and driving change within our communities.

Larry Kraft  03:34

Right. Local is so important, not just for the actions we can take, but also to build support for these kinds of policies and things nationwide.

Abby Finis  03:46

And to build community and get to know each other so that we can move forward on some of these things and hopefully reverse course on, you know, frankly, some of these atrocious decisions that are being handed down. So we do have a great example today. 

Larry Kraft  03:50

We do. 

Abby Finis  04:04

We're gonna speak with Andy Johnson, who's the executive director of the Winneshiek Energy District in Iowa that has been really doing some innovative and will work in northeast Iowa.

Larry Kraft  04:16

This was a great discussion. I was so excited to learn about stuff and it did not disappoint.

Abby Finis  04:22

Let's listen to it. 

Larry Kraft  04:23

Let's do it. 

Start of interview

Abby Finis  04:27

Today we are speaking with Andy Johnson, Director of the Winneshiek Energy District in Iowa. Welcome, Andy. So first, let's have you introduce yourself.

Andy Johnson  04:34

Sure. I'm Andy Johnson. I'm with the Winneshiek Energy District also the clean energy districts of Iowa which is our State Association of Energy districts. I grew up here in Northeast Iowa on a dairy farm, not too far from Decorah, a small town and still live there and still manage the farm with my wife and three girls. We don't dairy anymore, but we have Christmas trees and some grass fed beef and lamb so that farm life keeps me a little bit sane. And outside some and the energy work keeps me going.

Abby Finis  05:07

We want to chat with you today about the Winneshiek Energy District model. But first, can you even tell us what the concept in history is behind an energy district?

Andy Johnson  05:18

Yeah, an energy district at the basic level is a county level nonprofit that works to lead, implement and accelerate the clean energy transition. And I want to emphasize the county level, because that really is the model that we work off of is modeled after the Soil and Water Conservation District movement. The idea is to have a local team of champions to do the work, but also to partner with other levels, state and federal governments, other organizations to really do that coordination and all the various strategy work at the local level. 

Andy Johnson  05:54

There's something really powerful about local leadership, in this increasingly divided and contentious polarized world we're in trust of institutions of all kinds is really dropping. But trust in local institutions is still pretty strong. And so in our communities, it's not that we're not divided. But we can actually get a lot more done at the local level. We began in 2009 here in Winneshiek County in northeastern Iowa, grew out of some conversations that a number of us were part of on how to move the whole community and not just the county seat, the town of Decorah, but there are many smaller communities even in this rural county. So we settled on this model of a energy district. 

Andy Johnson  06:32

And to make a long story short, we got some grants, then we developed some membership funding. So we've developed sort of a three legged stool of financial support that then includes ultimately some revenue from services as well. And then in around 2015, we were having some pretty significant successes and seeing some movement here and began working with neighboring counties on starting up energy districts and their counties, clean energy districts, and now we have nine in eastern Iowa and ten in our association, because one is formally established in Wisconsin, and we're discussing with others and even in other states. So the movement seems to have some legs.

Winneshiek Energy District background

Larry Kraft  07:11

So you mentioned that the mission of Winneshiek Energy District is to lead, implement and accelerate the locally owned, inclusive clean energy transition in Winneshiek. I don't think you mentioned all that, but we pulled some of that from the website, what programs do you offer to drive that?

Andy Johnson  07:30

Key strategies include, and I'm going to start with an important one, technical assistance. A lot of nonprofits focus on education, community wide education efforts, we have believed from the very beginning, and again, related somewhat to the roots and Soil and Water and Natural Resources Conservation, where I worked for many years with USDA prior to getting involved in the energy district startup, technical assistance is really critical. And so you hear about that as energy auditing in the field energy audits, they unfortunately have a long history of being managed largely by utilities, which have an inherent conflict of interest and ended up becoming a program driven product that does nothing. So we call it energy planning, which is meant to be very comprehensive technical analysis, but also financial analysis, and then assistance in developing and implementing a plan. 

Andy Johnson  08:18

This ideally ought to be available to all energy users. So every household homeowner, small business, large business, farm, local institutions, and local governments, obviously, that work takes money to have quality, qualified technical experts to do the work. And so we have to fund that with grants. So we'd haven't been able to do it everywhere and for everyone, but we've done an awful lot of that. And that continues to be the core of what we try to do. And frankly then when you are well qualified, and you can demonstrate your expertise on the technical level, and we've we've helped to probably close to 1500 households and 500 farms and businesses directly. You build credibility that way. And so you have a leg to stand on, then when you're talking with community engagement with other partners when you're starting to do advocacy. 

Andy Johnson  09:10

Then we also do, of course, quite a bit of community engagement and education, through events and newsletters. We do a lot of market transformation around solar. But market transformation is truly a strategy in and of itself that a local nonprofit can engage in trying to sort of reach out to all sectors of the economy, especially contractors. For example, Community College's, financial, real estate, and then policy advocacy. The last strategy I'll mention actually wasn't in our toolbox when we first started. We were very focused on local: local technical assistance and local community engagement. And we realized pretty quickly that much of what we wanted to do in the energy efficiency arena, for example, in the locally owned renewables and solar arena did depend to a large degree on state policies, especially that we could get involved in. And so we did. And we've actually been quite active in policy advocacy with some key partners in Iowa and to a pretty good good outcomes. 

Andy Johnson  10:10

Those are the real lead strategies. I should mention this slogan that we often use green meets green. Lead implement accelerate the locally owned, inclusive, clean energy transition is a mouthful. Green meets green simplifies it and says, Yeah, we work for both clean energy prosperity and climate stewardship at the same time. Yes, we all work and care about climate issue. And that's urgent and significant. But we aren't just a climate advocacy organization, either. We're very much about local health and wealth and resilience. And that's where the ownership comes in. Because we really feel like it's important not just to green the economy, and reduce nationwide emissions, but to actually start to transition the economic models, in this case, especially around energy to stronger local investment, local communities, and it's so very possible in the energy world now.

Larry Kraft  11:01

So exciting stuff. If I'm living in the Winneshiek Energy District, and I want to get involved, how do I do it? How do I how do you sign up? How does it business sign up? How does a resident sign up?

Andy Johnson  11:12

On the energy planning side, we have resources available from a grant program or other programs. We can try and do some direct technical assistance with you if that's part of your interest. And that's where we encourage everyone to start. If we don't have resources, we offer those services on a fee for service basis. But beyond that, we do actually have a universally available first step program for a variety of households that qualify for the free service. And that includes lower income households, elderly veterans, disabled, so it's actually probably half more or less of the population. And this is run with our organization hosting a small team of AmeriCorps volunteers. But then we train them with energy efficiency, with diagnostics. 

Andy Johnson  11:57

This team of young people can actually do blower door tests and combustion safety testing. They find quite a number actually, surprisingly, of air quality, safety problems in households. Not surprising, but especially in lower income households. And then that team can do a direct install when they're at the household, whether it's an apartment or a home, which includes just changing out all light bulbs, for example, to LEDs. They do efficient showerheads and faucet aerators. And sometimes power strips and other things. And it matters, it's not a deep retrofit. But it really often can't be because many of these households are renters, for example, and they're not, you know, in charge of the entire structure. 

Andy Johnson  12:34

When it's beyond technical assistance. Well, then there are projects, community engagement things we do, and of course, the advocacy. There's always a significant number of folks that really appreciate engaging in advocacy. And an important part of our role is to bring really quality information locally and say, here's where we can matter, not just hey, sign on to this letter and sign this letter and call your congressman every chance you get. But here's the issue. Here's what's happening at the Statehouse right now this month. Most things that we would like to see aren't happening, maybe, but this thing is and it could succeed. And we need you to work on this. 

Winneshiek achievements

Larry Kraft  13:11

So you've been in business for over ten years now. And we saw this great report ten year achievements from 2020. What are some of the things you're most proud of? I mean, you talked about I think you said 1500 homes and five or 600 farms or businesses. Is that right? 

Andy Johnson  13:29

Yeah, we're very proud of those numbers. The vast majority have made an actual difference. And again, this is important. I want to emphasize a little bit of a broken record, but technical assistance too often in utility programs over the last generation 20-30 years. Those audit programs assessment programs have actually been ditched by many of them, including in Iowa now. The utilities, the large utilities don't even offer them because they say it makes no difference. Well, it makes no difference because they never did them. Well. That first step program I told you about every household they go into, they change light bulbs, they do those simple things, but they matter. And they save on average those households 100-150, sometimes $200 a year in energy costs, not huge, not the majority, but it really matters. 

Andy Johnson  14:14

The more comprehensive whole scope, energy planning we do with homes, farms and businesses, we have on average about a 75 to 80% conversion rate. In other words of those folks we work with from a small business to a household to a farm, that percentage will actually implement significant practices. And this could include energy efficiency, and solar. So our technical assistance is both energy efficiency and renewables and then to the degree folks are interested in transportation, emissions planning. Traditional energy audit programs of utilities often have a conversion rate of maybe 10% or 5%. So 75% is just it's a totally different ballgame. So we're really, really proud of that.

Larry Kraft  14:56

That conversion rate is super interesting to me. What do you think you do differently from some of these other programs, that gives you such a high conversion rate?

Andy Johnson  14:57

We start with being a local trusted service. So when you're not a utility, that usually is a better situation to be in. Most people can understand utilities, it's against their business model to reduce the sale their principal products. But we actually go in much beyond that. We do what I term whole scope, energy planning. We're looking at all energy sources and uses. Again, most utility programs don't, they're only there to do a quick and dirty walkthrough, maybe a clipboard audit for the energy they're selling you, then that's not helpful to most households, or businesses or farms. You really need a comprehensive look at your whole energy systems. And then you run the numbers. And this also is where most audits don't get to this level of running the numbers. Okay, here's your total annual energy expenses, gas, electric, propane, whatever it may be. And here's where it's going. 

Andy Johnson  15:56

And then let's look at the actual practices, whether they're mechanicals or shell appliances, other things, what are the investment costs? And what are the return times? And that's what allows folks take a small business owner, for example, to actually just look at the bottom line and prioritize. I mean, business owners, that's what they do. So if you just have a quick and dirty audit or walkthrough from a utility and say, Yeah, you should put some more insulation here, you might want to consider a new furnace. It means nothing to them, you know, they need numbers. So providing that level of technical financial analysis, yes, it takes longer, it's a bigger investment in that technical assistance. But the payoff of having a really high conversion rate is so much greater that it pays for it. 

Abby Finis  16:38

Do you also connect people with financing and contractors?

Andy Johnson  16:43

Yes, we try and help them make a plan and say, Okay, well, if these are your priorities, here's where you want to go. We don't generally recommend specific contractors, and of course, in small towns and rural areas, most people know some contractors they want to work with. And if they ask us, we can give them a list. But it's not just making the connections, then it's also being a technical assistance provider. Again, this takes time it's not easy, but can continue to work with that business owner or homeowner, whoever it may be and say, Hey, have you done anything yet? A follow up phone call? Did you go talk to the bank about a loan? 

Andy Johnson  17:17

A good example is a local nursing home we worked with, we did a comprehensive analysis. And it's a classic case where a lot of institutions and nonprofits are in this situation, or churches or whatever, where there was a good report, but the board had just too much on their plate. Other priorities. They didn't have the bandwidth to really dive into this quality energy efficiency report and say, Look, we should do X, Y, and Z. So we kept talking to him, finally suggest to the facilities manager, okay, you know, what, why don't you just go talk to this, this other person, oh, this contractor that's been doing a lot of institutional LED lighting, and just get a quote just on the lighting section. So then there's one very specific thing he could bring to the board, investment of 30 grand for this project, pay off in three years savings and $10,000, a year after that. Okay. They said, we see this five minutes on a board meeting, they voted it up, it's done. Let's do it. And six months later, the project was done. It's just a matter of follow through often, which takes time, but it's a very cost effective use of technical assistance.

Larry Kraft  18:20

One thing we noticed was that the investment in solar in Winneshiek seems to be quite a bit higher than the state average. Can you talk about that?

Andy Johnson  18:29

We do have probably over 400 customer owned solar systems: homes, foreign businesses, and a few institutions. In Winneshiek County alone, which is just one small rural Iowa County, that represents an investment of probably about $20 million, which is 10x, at least the state and Midwest average. And that's come about really through market transformation. So our energy district, we have not installed a single solar panel. The district is not a solar contractor. But from very early on, we recognize that solar was coming along. And as we started to work with local businesses, small businesses. By 2011 and 12 they were asking, and so we were saying, Okay, well, we better be able to develop that technical capability. And we started doing solar side assessments for every business that we did energy efficiency analysis for. 

Andy Johnson  19:20

Then they started saying, Okay, well, where am I going to get the solar if I do want to invest? So we worked with the local community college, got some green grant funding from the first stimulus, the ARRA funds, and did some trainings for contractors on solar installations. And so a number of our local contractors learned how to do solar three at first in the early days. But thanks to the demand that was building from the technical work we were doing, the electrical contractors realized there was work to be done here. They were actually hearing it from their local small business customers because we were doing the technical assistance with those small business customers, showing them that solar could be effective that yes, you have a good foof sight, or no you don't. So things started to roll here on solar 2011 contractors Community College. 

Andy Johnson  20:07

And then a third leg, of course of this is financing. And so we started working with the banks all the way back then. And just showing the numbers and a bankers, they just want to see the numbers. Here's your estimated investment, here's your power production and the value of that power production. And so your simple payback and your rate of return, they could look at that. And they can see the value of that just like any other small business investment. And so multiple local banks, were okay with solar loans. One especially really took the bull by the horns and went strong on actually advertising solar loans back then for the small business community and then for the residential community as well. 

Andy Johnson  20:44

And in the early years, they racked up pretty quickly $5 million, and solar loans. And things just ballooned from there. They then a couple years ago actually created one of the first in the nation, virtual green bank branches, certainly the first in the Midwest, they are still very strong partners, we work closely with them. And that whole scope is what we talk about as market transformation working with the various sectors of the local economy to ensure this transition is firing on all cylinders, and the momentum builds. And then you know, the contractors are out there making a lot of money off of solar, they're doing it well. They're well trained, they're going to market, they all have a broad base of customers, they're going to keep marketing, we keep doing community events and bringing people to them, we just had a solar fair, we had over 200 people there. And this is the eighth year, maybe we've done solar fairs. Momentum builds, but you've got to think of it as market transformation, not just education.

Larry Kraft  21:43

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Abby Finis  22:00

I think that this really warrants like a deeper case study and more elevation throughout the country. And Larry, I don't know if you remember this, but we drove down to Dubuque a few years ago and went through Decorah and solar was everywhere. Somebody asked me at one point, what does market transformation look like for solar? And I said, I guess it's one of those things that you know, when you see it, and I feel like Decorah and maybe Winneshiek County as a whole is one of those things, you just you notice solar everywhere. It's not just here or there, but it's all over the place. It's a pretty great story.

Andy Johnson  22:30

Yeah. And I just want to lift up one little piece of that it isn't just in town, it's all around the county, we have a lot of solar on farms. It's actually a very profitable thing for farms, because farms are businesses and businesses, they get not only tax credits when they're available, but also depreciation. Another important part of market transformation is when the market really starts to roll, efficiencies develop. That's what markets do. And then there's competition and the cost has come down. We've also had not just the highest rates of installed but currently and connectedly some of the lowest prices to install solar in the Midwest. That's better for everyone and more people are ready to do it. Payback periods for farms and small businesses on a decent site here have been sometimes five years. That's really good.

Community partnerships

Abby Finis  23:17

That is really good. And nevermind, you know, we're in a period of pretty high inflation and high energy prices. And folks that were able to get ahead of that are much better positioned in further curbing their increasing energy costs. The partnership with the financial institutions is clearly a really important one and helping making these projects happen. But we also want to talk about the community partnerships and better understand how you work with the county with local cities to support their efforts, while also implementing your programs.

Andy Johnson  23:50

As a nonprofit, we're an independent organization. But we do partner as closely as we can with the city and the county. Actually, just a few examples. I can mention early on, we work quite a bit with the city of Decorah to do energy planning energy assessments with lower income households using city TIF funds. We also early on a couple of years ago was the second round, almost a decade apart of sustainability planning that we engaged in with the city the very first time back around 2010. We initiated it, we got some some state grant funds, we went to the city and said, hey, you know, let's look at a community wide sustainability plan. The city had already taken some actions. And this was before most communities were doing sustainability planning, so to speak, but we said hey, let's give it a shot. And so I went through that process, and it was interesting and useful. 

Andy Johnson  24:42

A couple of years ago, the process happened again, and they're getting more serious about community wide emissions inventory and analysis, which we did the first time, but in 2010 the utilities just refused to give quality information. This latest round actually they did. That allows for more detailed planning and looking at practices and whatnot. Another example we worked with communities on not just our local town, but communities actually around northeast, Iowa was SolSmart. So this is a USDOE and contractor led program that just helps communities develop solar friendly policy ordinances, inspections, processes, things like that. We actually offered this service to a number of communities and went through it with I think, nine or 10 of them, and probably eight of them certified. So all of a sudden, we doubled or tripled the number of SolSmart communities in Iowa. That's an example to of just working with local governments on policy. I mentioned, we really engage in state big ticket items on policy, like net metering and energy efficiency programs. But we also definitely try and work with local governments on policy, especially when they have questions.

Abby Finis  25:49

These are all really valuable resources for local governments to help them wade through. They understand kind of the policy side, but they don't necessarily always understand the application for clean energy technology. So that's really helpful. I do want to go back a little bit, and maybe you can explain this more, but you mentioned TIF financing for low income residents, and that's tax increment financing. But can you explain what kind of structure is set up to help move energy efficiency for low income households?

Andy Johnson  26:18

Yeah, well, this was actually quite a while ago. It was a pretty modest program. The TIF in Iowa, TIF funds are authorized generally, by state law, a certain portion of TIF financing is required to be set aside for LMI purposes, and that can go towards incentivizing more LMI housing. But there's a TIF LMI board created by the city council that sometimes has some level of discretionary use of some of those funds that have been generated from the TIF program. And the board at that time in Decorah said, we would really like to help our low income housing, especially folks part of the low income housing rental assistance program. What we were doing at that point was just the energy assessments, energy plans with those households. We didn't actually have dollars to help implement things, but we would help them connect more directly with the rebates that were there, incentives that were there. 

Andy Johnson  27:08

And then that actually evolved, interestingly, into more partnership with local institutions like the Regional Council developments here, regional planning authority, has a regional housing trust fund that's related to the various community level, low income housing rental work. And so that program can potentially fund some energy efficiency improvements, like doors and windows,  roof replacement they really like to do, which is both just a structural integrity thing and an energy efficiency thing. So then we could connect some of those customers with that program. 

Andy Johnson  27:41

And then of course, we're very big fans of the federal programs weatherization in LIHEAP, we're not trying to duplicate that work. And so we're always trying to channel people into those programs. They're not perfect. LIHEAP, of course, is a band aid, but it's a very important band aid for low income folks that need help paying for energy. Weatherization has had its critics. And sure, like any big program, it has had its challenges, but it is a really effective way of retrofitting significant numbers of homes when COVID hit, and folks were having their energy shut offs happening, we engage really heavily both state nationally actually on the shut off debate. But we engage locally just by running a phone bank and calling hundreds of hundreds of households and ensuring they were signed up for LIHEAP. That's the kind of thing a local organization can just say, This matters. We have to do it. We're gonna do it. So we did.

Carbon offsets

Larry Kraft  28:34

I'd say I'm struck by how much interesting innovation has happened around what you're doing. I mean, you mentioned the bank, which you didn't direct but I think they saw an opportunity and dove in and have really positioned themselves. In fact, when Abby mentioned Winneshiek to me, I said wait a minute, I heard of that because I had read about the bank, Greenpenny and tracked back to you all that way. One other interesting innovation I saw too, is these Oneota Tag carbon offsets. Carbon offsets can be a contentious issue sometimes. But I thought the way it's happening there seems really interesting. Can you talk about what those are? 

Andy Johnson  29:19

This is a program we started actually also pretty early on along the themes of localism still investing locally. Offsets are yes, a contentious issue and on a large scale and in the big picture of climate change we cannot depend on those. And we shouldn't be depending on them as principle strategies, nationally or globally. But they're out there and people are buying them and people buy an airline ticket and see oh, you can go carbon neutral on this and carbon neutral on that. And we said you know what, let's just keep those dollars local. That's a theme that has run all the way through from the very beginning of our work. Keep your dollars local, especially energy related dollars local, let's own this thing. 

Andy Johnson  29:55

And so we said let's figure out well where validly with integrity and transparency are we causing emissions reductions locally? And is there a way to help local folks invest in that rather than go send their dollars off to some program that is not likely to do anything. So we said, well, our AmeriCorps program is well defined transparent. They do direct install. We invest well over $30,000 a year to host this team of AmeriCorps members. And to help them do the work they do in low income households. And that's pretty significant. And a chunk of that, of course, goes to the training goes to their miles, and their supervision. But it also goes to buy all the supplies and the light bulbs and everything else and the equipment that they use to do blower door tests. And so we said, here are the emissions reductions we generate from this work on an annual basis, we had to build a database to monitor that. Here are the emissions reductions, here's the money we invest, here's what it would cost if you want to say you're investing in a ton of emissions reductions, which we set from the beginning and has have held steady at $30 a ton. 

Andy Johnson  31:02

So you can put your money here, and it'll support this work of this AmeriCorps team with this organization working in low income households in this region directly. And we will show you actually the number of light bulbs we install every year because it's in our database. We never have really tried to tout it as a huge revenue generator, because offsets are not where we really need to be going. But as a way for locals to invest keep their money locally. It doesn't create a huge amount of revenue. But that program creates maybe half of the funds needed to host this team and run our first step Efficiency Program. And it's been an interesting road.

Municipalization of electric service

Larry Kraft  31:40

We talked before recording about municipalization. Can you give us a little bit of background on what that is? And while you're doing it, why it's being pursued?

Andy Johnson  31:50

Winneshiek County spends roughly 100 million dollars a year on energy of all kinds. And most of that, of course, those dollars leave our county. So just big picture, it's pretty easy to see how energy is an extractive industry. Most dollars in most dollars in most counties in the Midwest, energy always flow out. So we've been saying all along, how do we invest more locally? Well, owning the utility is certainly one way to do that. Owning a utility would allow you then to create your own priorities. You wouldn't have large overhead and executive and administrative dollars flowing out, you would have local ownership of the infrastructure and could create the policies around things like customer generation, net metering, and wouldn't be at the whims of the investor on utility. But you could also then as a utility, invest directly in large scale, local renewables storage. 

Andy Johnson  32:41

All these things that we've known for a decade are coming along and possible and now are very possible and our here. You can essentially flip the tune of exporting most of our energy dollars to just keeping them right here in our local economy. We have consumer on utilities, municipal electric utilities and rural electric coops scattered throughout. But still, the bulk of customers in most of our Midwestern states, including Iowa, three quarters, more or less, are served by investor owned utilities. Those are the most wealth extractive style of utilities. 

Andy Johnson  33:12

Most of our states, including Iowa have somewhere buried in state code, the authorization for cities who do not have a municipal electric utility, to vote to create one. In Iowa, any community has a right to a vote, the city council essentially needs to take this step usually based on a feasibility study or something like that. City council can put the issue in front of voters, if the vote is positive, just 50% plus one, then the city can take that issue to the state regulator and in Iowa's case, the Iowa Utilities Board and apply for the service territory, because electricity it is a regulated industry on service territory. So only one utility can be providing a community with power at any given time. Then the utility board needs to make a decision. It's a very resource intensive process. So it's not done frequently. 

Andy Johnson  34:04

Around the country there are a lot of examples over the last 10-20 years of communities municipalizing, but the utility of course, fights it tooth and nail. There's a national utility playbook. And unfortunately, the biggest part of that playbook is divided the community terribly and promote all kinds of myths, truths and untruths. Well in Decorah there has been enough clean energy movement and some level of universal support for locally owned clean energy, that around 2016-17 there was a lot of interest in Hey, maybe we should try for a municipal utility. We work together with others to create a new organization called the Decorah power that then led this effort got an agreement with the City Council who expressed interest but didn't want to pay for anything. They appointed a liaison to the core power and authorized them to do a feasibility study which came out very positive. The city council took those results back and said well, hey, we're gonna put this up for a community vote, we think there's real potential here. And then over the course of about three or four months, it was predictably an extremely divisive issue. Long story short, the vote was a tie effectively, it was a no by three votes. That was 2018. 

Andy Johnson  35:18

Fast forward, Iowa code allows a community to vote on a Municipal Electric referendum not more often than every four years. So four years have gone by now. A year or so ago, the city council created a task force to study the effort again. I'm on that task force. It's a taskforce of 10 been doing a fair amount of community engagement. And it's still an open question, what the recommendation will be in part because while the community engagement work has been going on strong, the updating of the feasibility study is somewhat stalled because the task force and the city council fairly early on put in a request to the utility, Alliant, for very comprehensive, direct information. Specifics that the first time around the utility had really criticized the feasibility study on saying you made up these numbers, you don't have real numbers. So this time around the city said, well, then give us the real numbers, please. And we'll plug them into the study. And then we can all agree, here's what we're looking at. Well, the utility has resisted and refused. And so right now, the community essentially, has taken the utility to the Utilities Board. And we're waiting to see whether we'll get access to that information. 

Scaling energy districts

Abby Finis  36:30

Definitely something worth watching and revisiting. There are now several clean energy districts in Iowa and a couple I think, that are popping up in Wisconsin. Is this something that other parts of the country outside the Midwest can replicate?

Andy Johnson  36:45

Absolutely, with the caveat that the financial resources are always a challenge. The model, though, it's been really interesting and exciting to see even just in Iowa the level of growth. But you need to go in with your eyes wide open. You're starting a new organization, you need a board, a team of champions who's going to be a working board. So you need people who aren't just going to burn out right away. Once you create that institution, then those champions have a soapbox, and they have something to work from a name, to build relationships with local partners, to engage in advocacy to pursue grants. But there's just no magic bullet in terms of Well, here's the money that's going to provide you with some staff, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. 

Andy Johnson  37:25

The format of a county level, clean energy, leadership and ownership organization just seems to really resonate. It seems to work. I can't stress enough the importance of localism. I grew up here on a dairy farm. And Winneshiek County when I go to the next county over, like I was just last Friday, two counties over to one of their expos. I'm not local anymore. Now they still get I'm an Iowan, I'm a neighbor all that but the local credibility really matters. In this polarized world we're in, I mentioned earlier, the institutional trust issues. Can we come together around climate change at all? Well, we can come together around the solutions to climate change at the local level. And I think that's a really important lesson from the energy district work that's happened. Even some of the young energy districts that just haven't had resources or been around that long. Their communities really can come together around these solutions around local ownership, around working on energy efficiency, and keeping those energy dollars local around locally owned renewables. 

Andy Johnson  38:27

Once people understand them and engage those are you universally popular and supported issues. And it's not that there aren't trolls, we still have our trolls here and Winneshiek Energy District, but one of my favorite critiques that happened just three or four years into our work here was I got yelled at out on the street by one of our local naysayers, claiming that we that I had brainwashed every business owner down here on Water Street, which is our main street. And I kind of turned around and like, oh, well, if all the business community is on board with this, I think we're doing our job pretty well. I took that as a compliment and went on. 

Andy Johnson  39:02

Now, local governments can play a really important role in this too, and bring their communities together around locally owned clean energy. But as we all know, not all local governments are on board with this. Some are doing great. Some have their divisiveness challenges as well. So yeah, the idea of a nonprofit, third party that can do both that quality technical assistance, build the cred and then engage the community, around markets and around policy seems to have legs. I think it's a it's a model that anyone could replicate, we'd be happy to talk to anyone around the country and other states and work on it. 

Andy Johnson  39:36

I'd like to mention briefly the long term solution of enabling legislation. The idea that we're nonprofits, and you have to pursue your own grant funding, et cetera, et cetera, is a challenge and anyone that starts an energy district should go into that with their eyes wide open, have modest goals, plan for some staying power, even if you don't have a lot of money etc. Now, I mentioned earlier on the Soil and Water Conservation District model. Google energy district geography of change. That's our concept document that explains the model a little bit there. And our hope is to actually outline enabling legislation that could be passed at the state level, similar to what created the Soil and Water Conservation Districts back in the 1930s, and 40s, and 50s. Whereby a state then would authorize local boards to create these clean energy districts effectively as they are now but they wouldn't necessarily then be nonprofits, they would be quasi governmental. Soil and Water Districts are quasi governmental, they are locally elected boards that then have the support of state government in the sense of being the official local implementer of this important resource concern for the soil and water districts, its soil and water conservation habitat, things like that on private lands. 

Andy Johnson  40:50

For the energy districts, a state could pass authorizing legislation and energy districts would then be the official state partner for the locally led clean energy transition, that then would open the door for direct state funding. So then everyone says, Oh, my gosh, a new government bureaucracy, except if you look at the history of soil and water districts, they were highly effective, and are still in many cases really effective with a minimum of funding, but it's enough to have a base operating support. And then in the clean energy world, this is a really exciting piece of this potential policy picture. If a state passed authorizing legislation that supported the formation of county level clean energy districts, provided a really small base level of operating support, and then made the connection with their existing ratepayer funded energy efficiency programs, to take a piece of those funds and channel them through energy districts to provide universal technical assistance, then we'd be off and running. 

Andy Johnson  41:47

It's a real opportunity. It's a big ask, of course. But it's not something that has to happen all at once nationally either. A forward looking state could do this. Could take this model and implement it. And then yes, energy districts could form in every single county in that state. And then what happens is that when one state does something that's really effective, their neighbors are going to copy them. We're working on that.


Abby Finis  42:11

What does Iowa look like to you, if all the counties had energy districts and were successfully implementing energy programs?

Andy Johnson  42:20

The numbers that we have for Winneshiek County sound impressive, and yet, they're still just the tip of the iceberg. I think clean energy prosperity is way more than a slogan, we're already seeing it here. That economic engine really matters. It creates jobs, it strengthens households. It keeps those dollars local. And in doing that, it accelerates the climate stewardship that has to happen. And we all know, when we're looking at climate timelines, it's worrisome. And so every five and ten year period matters. And what we've seen with local leadership, yes, technological advances matter. Yes, federal policy around tax credits, and so many other things, transportation and EVS really do matter. And yet, with quality local work and relationships and Champions and Partnerships, we can accelerate two to 10x. We're not talking about 10% or 20%, two to 10x every aspect of the clean energy transition. So yes, if we could actually get the policy and sustainable funding model for clean energy districts, allow them to form and get to work in every county, we would not only have stronger, healthier, more vibrant communities, we would have a more livable climate. Absolutely. Faster than we're having it now.

Abby Finis  43:44

Well, you certainly laid the groundwork for more to happen. And we've covered a lot of ground here and really appreciate your time and sharing this story with us. 

Larry Kraft  43:54

Yeah, I think I've been brainwashed.

Abby and Larry debrief

Abby Finis  44:02

Alright, Larry, well, what do you think?

Larry Kraft  44:04

Lots of thoughts. I think we'll start with his point about trust in local institutions is still strong, even in this era, where trust in our federal and state institutions seems to be eroding and that you can get a lot done, which they've shown at a local level.

Abby Finis  44:22

He spoke about a little bit of pushback he might get here and there but he saw it as a compliment when he said they brainwash the businesses. It's brainwashing or you know, it's coming together and seeing that shared vision and trusting one another and trusting those institutions.

Larry Kraft  44:41

It was also really cool to see how this idea generated so much around it. I mean, think about the bank there, Decorah Bank and Trust how they created Greenpenny. We see more and more this idea as government or institutions is convening things and creating the right environment for innovation to flourish and for Clean Energy to flourish. And this is a great example of that.

Abby Finis  45:03

Yeah. And I just think that it continues to underscore that importance of leaning into what you can do at the local level, as both the trust and the capacity of the federal government diminishes. Really building up those relationships, reinforcing the credibility of local institutions and working within community to advance these efforts is critically important.

Larry Kraft  45:31

Hey, what about that 75% conversion rate, man in baseball be unheard of right? Batting 750.

Abby Finis  45:38

That would be quite hitter. Yeah, I think that's incredible. And I think it speaks volumes to, you know, how much intentionality there is in working with people laying out a plan for them and kind of helping them see it through versus a fire that might come in, in the mail and let you know, about rebates that are available, or even some of these other programs that might do an energy audit, but there's not a lot of follow through beyond that for your home. I find it to be a really fascinating case study and something that can be looked at to scale up and how do you do that and other places and put the foundation and pieces in place to have that kind of a program?

Larry Kraft  46:19

Right? And what is it they have 10x the amount of solar as other places in Iowa?

Abby Finis  46:26

I think so. Yeah. And we mentioned, you know, you notice it, if you're driving through northeast Iowa, it is a very lovely part of Iowa. It's not all cornfields. And, you know, there's some river valleys there. And there's a ton of solar, and it's really cool to see that.

Larry Kraft  46:41

Think about that. Imagine if we could get 10x the amount of solar everywhere, right? That shows the possibility here have this kind of approach.

Abby Finis  46:50

Yeah. And you know, they've been expanding the clean energy districts and other counties and a little bit into Wisconsin. But I'd be curious, you know, what does the statewide approach look like? What could legislation do to enable more of these to pop up and have that policy support behind them, and maybe some funding behind them to really see them grow?

Larry Kraft  47:11

Yeah, it was interesting to hear his parallel to the Soil and Water Conservation districts that are pretty prevalent. And I tell you, something I want to dig into and learn more about, as I hopefully join state government here in Minnesota next year.

Abby Finis  47:29

Yeah, I just really liked this program. I've known about it for a while. And I'm really glad that we were able to highlight it on the podcast and share this because I just think that it's a really, really awesome model for the power of local action.

Larry Kraft  47:43

Right. And it's not in a big metro area either. 

Abby Finis  47:46

No, not at all yeah. 

Larry Kraft  47:47

They're talking about folks and farmers and everything coming together around the solutions to climate change, as he said.

Abby Finis  47:59

We hope you enjoyed this episode of City Climate Corner. If you like what you're hearing, make sure to subscribe and give us a review. If you're able, become a monthly supporter through Patreon. As always, you can find more information on this topic and resources from each episode's guests on our webpage If you have an idea for the show, send us an email at or find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Larry Kraft  48:22

City Climate Corner is produced by Abby Finnis and me, Larry Kraft. Edited by me. Our production assistant is Maggie Morin. Music by 

Abby Finis  48:31

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Larry Kraft  48:33

Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.