Guest Columnists

Coming together around locally led clean energy


‘It was a no-brainer,” said the owner of the car dealership, giving a tour to the congressman. “First the LED lighting throughout the building to cut load, then the solar panels, both were great for the bottom line.” Then, looking him straight in the eye, he added, “and it was the right thing to do.”

This powerful combination of local economic opportunity and deep Iowa stewardship is the “green meets green” foundation behind Clean Energy Districts. As trouble in the fields of political discourse grows, energy districts are examples of values and visions we can rally around locally, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

Here in Winneshiek County, we’ve been rolling up our sleeves together for a number of years around locally-owned clean energy. We’d love to share the experience with you at our Energy District conference Dec. 8-9 in Decorah, help you start an Energy District in your neck of the woods, and collaboratively craft state enabling legislation to kick-start an efficient and effective network of such districts across Iowa and beyond.

Energy Districts functioning in Northeast Iowa are organized at the county level and operate as non-profit corporations with a local board. Their core function is to assist consumers with energy planning, diagnostics and assessment of energy efficiency and renewable opportunities, financial analysis — including the spectrum of available incentives — and project implementation. Clean energy related economic development, market transformation, and community engagement are also important work areas.

Winneshiek Energy District was the first in the nation organized on the locally-led model of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. For Energy Districts to become a “universal local” infrastructure like SWCDs however, the Legislature would need to pass enabling legislation. This legislation would establish the legal and governing structure (most likely elected boards), the powers and responsibilities, the funding alternatives, and the relationship to existing state agencies and programs. If the Iowa legislature passes such legislation it would be the first in the nation to do so.

Soil and Water Conservation Districts were a good idea that came from Washington and spread to every county in the country during the Great Depression. Will Energy Districts be a similar “universal local” clean energy model that starts right here in northeast Iowa, and spreads statewide and even national? You can help answer that question if you join us in December — and BYOL (Bring Your Own Legislator)!

“The solar panels are one of the best investments I’ve made for the bottom line recently” said the local Farm Bureau leader, “and they’re also one of the most important investments I’ve made for my grandkids in a long time.”


Those powerful local impacts don’t happen by magic. The boots-on-the-ground technical assistance and follow-through with all types of energy consumers, the market transformation drivers, and the community partnerships take an investment in local resources and passion. An Energy District leverages those technical resources and passion to achieve local impact.

Can’t someone else do this work? No. There is a short window of opportunity to both plug giant leaks in local economies throughout Iowa, and accelerate our climate stewardship progress, through the “green meets green” work of locally-led Energy Districts. The early bird gets the worm, as Iowans know, and this is one opportunity we would be wise not to pass up.

The Soil and Water Conservation Districts are a good model. Federal and state conservation agencies and programs realized very early on that the most effective leadership and program delivery is local. But they needed that local partnership everywhere, hence the “universal local” delivery system of SWCDs evolved.

Today a similar missing link exists in the delivery system for clean energy programs and incentives, and Energy Districts can fill that role. They can also think much bigger, however, accelerating the local investment in and ownership of a new clean energy economy with dramatic wealth creation and retention impacts — i.e. jobs.

Few realize the full economic opportunity Energy Districts present. Energy consumers in Winneshiek County alone, for example, spend over $100 million per year on energy, and most of this leaves the local economy. Every million dollars kept local through energy efficiency and locally owned renewables generates jobs in the process, then functions like a million dollar tax break (forever!) for the households, businesses, farms, and institutions affected.

Some say only the largest utilities can take clean energy to scale, but we say think again. Winneshiek is already seeing millions in savings and investment, and we’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg in efficiency and solar PV.

In fact, solar is the most scaleable of all energy technologies, and scaling the current solar achievements of Farmers Electric Cooperative in Washington County would result in a level of local solar ownership similar to that of all the mega wind turbines currently in the state.

“You probably saved at least one of our lives” said the elderly woman whose husband had been in and out of the hospital for months, without clear diagnosis. Our Green Iowa AmeriCorps team had identified faulty combustion appliances and major spillage of toxic gases into the basement immediately below their bedroom.


Iowa does local well, and we do stewardship well. Our can-do spirit is evident through existing “universal local” systems such as SWCDs, County Conservation Boards, and Watershed Authorities.

Please join us for the Iowa-Midwest Energy District Conference. We’ll dive deep into the model, share experience on “how to start an Energy District”, and collaboratively draft Energy District enabling legislation for the 2017 legislative session.

Join us, be a part of clean energy history. For more information and to register, visit, or email the author at

• Andy Johnson is executive director of the Winneshiek Energy District and previously was a conservationist with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. He and his wife raise Christmas trees, grass-fed cattle and sheep, and daughters on their farm in Winneshiek County.

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