Voices of 100%: Small Iowa Town Pushes for Energy Independence — Episode 79 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 20 Jun 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

How does a small city in southeastern Iowa plan to achieve energy independence and join the more than 100 cities across the country that are working toward ambitious goals to generate their electricity from renewable resources?

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell spoke with Chris Ball, Community Development Director for the town of Bloomfield, Iowa. Bloomfield is a small town in southeastern Iowa with a population of about 2,600 people, aging homes, and its own municipal electric and gas utilities. At the urging of the town’s residents, Bloomfield is now pursuing ways to expand energy independence and reduce their reliance on imported energy by investing in solar, energy efficiency, and more.

Listen to the full episode to learn how the town is taking action to support local, clean energy, and explore more highlights and resources, below — including a transcript and written summary of the conversation.

Chris Ball: So if we can improve homes, improve quality of life, and make it better aligned to when we’re producing energy, then these things make sense.
Marie Donahue: How does a small city in southeastern Iowa plan to achieve energy independence and join the more than 100 cities across the country that are working toward ambitious goals to generate their electricity from renewable resources?

This podcast is part of our special, Voices of 100% series — where we’re speaking with local leaders to understand what has motivated these ambitious clean energy commitments and how cities plan to meet their goals. In this episode, our host John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, interviews Chris Ball, who serves as the Community Development Director for the City of Bloomfield, Iowa, to learn more about how this small city is taking action.

This is Local Energy Rules. A podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.

John Farrell: With me today is Chris Ball, community development director for the city of Bloomfield, Iowa. Welcome to the program, Chris.
Chris Ball: Thanks. It’s great to be here.
John Farrell: So I’d like to talk first about Bloomfield’s energy goals. Uh, in the context of these over 100 cities, now that I’ve made 100% renewable energy commitments, I’ve heard it most frequently described as quote, energy independence. But I’m wondering what that means. So other cities are making, you know, a hundred percent renewable electricity commitments. Others just had things like net zero energy. What is Bloomfield aiming for with its energy goals?
Chris Ball: Sure, that’s a great question. So we, we do describe it as energy independence, um, because we, we started out actually talking about net zero with regards to electricity. Um, and we found that that phrasing didn’t really resonate with our community. They didn’t grasp what that meant or it just didn’t feel right. Um, so as we started working through it, we found that the phrase energy independence resonated better. And so we do talk about it in terms of admin zero, but not necessarily all clean energy are all renewable energy. We’re just talking about having all of the electricity that we use on an annual basis produced locally. In most cases it does turn out to be renewable or clean energy, but that isn’t one of the requirements of the city’s goal.
John Farrell: Okay, that’s very helpful. And you said energy and I just want to just clarify it, to distinguish that from electricity. Is the goal for the city to do all energy for all different uses like buildings and transportation or is it really focused just on electricity for now?
Chris Ball: So what is the goal is to produce electricity. Oh, I’ll, you know, be net zero with regards to electricity. Um, but because we are a municipal utility that serves both electricity and natural gas, we do have other energy goals. Um, but they’re not factored into that 20, 30 commitment.
John Farrell: One of the things that, uh, I think a lot of people are curious about is that you have previously, your title is the energy efficiency director. Now some of those duties are in and your new title Community Development Director, uh, with the city of Bloomfield. I was hoping you could explain that role and how it interfaces with this. As you mentioned, the city owned gas and electric utilities.
Chris Ball: Sure. You know, I guess it was we as this position developed or is the goal kind of developed? We realize that hitting those targets are becoming energy independent would require more than just looking at the utility side of things. We have new city administered and he felt like a more appropriate title would be community development director because, um, it would then indicate that we’re looking at not just how do we produce energy and how do we, um, you know, from an energy efficiency perspective, but also what are the other parts of the community aspects, what other aspects within the community need to come together in order to hit some of these goals. So part of what I look at in addition to the energy production is how do we modify our housing? What do we have to do? I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s more encompassing to, we’re trying to not just look at it from a utility perspective, but how do we look at it from a community perspective? And part of that is looking at housing, water quality, um, planning and zoning. And so really we’re trying to figure out how to bring that all together and make it a holistic view as opposed to strictly just looking at energy.
John Farrell: Yeah. Well I guess I would, I be curious, so it sounds like there are some elements around like traditional energy efficiency that are part of your role in terms of ensuring that there’s access for our residents to ways to like put in insulation or otherwise reduce the energy use of your house. But it sounds like it’s a lot broader too because you have the, you know, the city owns the utilities, the city can work together with the utilities to do things like I for example, I know Minneapolis just changed the zoning laws to look at allowing a little more density on traditional city lots or maybe they’re smoothing out the permitting process for installing solar on the rooftop. Is that Senate committee with some of the things that you’re getting at when you talk about, you know, involving more than just the utility?
Chris Ball: Exactly. Yeah. So we are looking at all of those things. So how do we have a very, I guess traditional view of planning and zoning here are planning and zoning laws hasn’t been looked at probably for 30 years in terms of do they meet our current community needs? And so one of the things that we find is that over the, over the course of years we’ve had several homes that have come down, you know, for one reason or another and the lots that are now vacant but wouldn’t be acceptable under current zoning codes to put a new house on. So do we need to look at modifications so that we can do some infill there? And instead of doing new development and having, you know, all of the requirements that go with new development than you’d infrastructure and all of that, how can we better use the existing land base and in infrastructure that’s in place by modifying our, our planning and zoning code, right.

Or, um, one of the issues that were really struggling with is, uh, the quality of our housing. We have like many rural places, um, an aging housing stock. It’s had a lot of deferred maintenance. If you look at it from an energy use perspective, our homes are really, really inefficient. So poor quality homes and efficient homes and what can we do? So it’s not just about throwing solar on everything and saying, Hey, now we look green, but how can we actually reduce our footprint? How can we make, uh, help our, our residents have homes that are healthier, more comfortable and more energy efficient. So we’re, you know, it’s, it’s, we’re both looking at it from a space perspective and an overall quality perspective.

John Farrell: I was reading a little bit about some of the background of the work that your city’s been doing and as, am I correct that there was like an energy assessment done of residential properties and that you discovered in doing this, that you had a lot of properties that were pretty high energy consumption and perhaps not as energy efficient as you might’ve hoped?
Chris Ball: Yeah, that’s correct. So one of the things that’s unique about being a municipal utilities, you have a lot of access to data that you wouldn’t get under a typical investor own situation. So on our utility in our city health for a very long time had a policy that anybody can walk in and ask for the energy use on any building within the city limits are served by the utility. And so we’ve taken the step of saying, okay, that’s great that we make that information publicly available, but how can we make access to that information easier? So one of the things that we’ve done in the last few months is published and map online that shows, um, the energy use intensity for every home within the city limits. And when we did that, we, we discovered some pretty disturbing numbers. For example, if you look at when we’re using this based on site energies intensity and which is the basically BTUs per square foot use per year on that property, right?

The Midwest average as far as we can tell, is about 45 and in Bloomfield, our average is closer to 75 and we’ve got about 25% of our homes that are above that 75. And so we know that there’s huge opportunity for those homes to become more efficient with some pretty basic techniques and air sealing and insulation that could really drive down costs just for those, those folks. You know, when you have that huge gap between, and you know, the 45 for the Midwest average doesn’t even come close to what new for standards are for a new built home. So we, we really see that there’s a huge opportunity to provide some pretty quick impact in the city. Has w you know, decided that that’s an investment worth making it, they’ve committed three, well, I say city, but it’s the municipality. We submitted three quarters of $1 million over the next year to doing upgrades to homes that basically do an on bill financing that would help folks become, you know, put different measures in place.

We’ll do an audit of each house, put it, give them a recommended a recipe for how to improve their property. Um, and, uh, you know, we hope that we’re going to see some movement there were not ready to launch that program now, but hopefully within three to four months will be that’ll be in place and then people are heading into the cooling season. We’re going to be in a place where we can do the audits and help them make some improvements to their property. And one of the cool things that we’re doing, um, we’re, we’re looking at a model that, uh, is pay as you save. It’s been used in other communities around the country but not in Iowa yet. Um, but one of the reasons we’re looking at that model because we’re really trying to figure out how to not just hit, um, on our occupied properties, but how can we hit rental properties? We’ve got about 35% of our properties are rentals. Those are some of our most inefficient properties as well.

John Farrell: Yeah. I should note for, uh, for our listeners that, uh, I LSR published a report on the pays you saved model or on bill financing or in the case of our publication, we call it inclusive energy financing. Because of its ability to help address populations that aren’t often able to be served by traditional energy efficiency programs. So we’ll have a link to that on our show page. I’m really glad you’ve mentioned this program and also kind of the like at baseline information that you put together. Cause I, my next question was about sort of what Bloomfield’s done so far and I think both of those are really powerful examples. You know, the data thing is so crucial. Uh, you know, I’ve seen work in Minneapolis, it’s taken years even though there is this in a formal partnership between the investor owned utilities, gas and electric and the city, uh, to get some data.

And there are, you know, a lot of wrangling about privacy with the states regulators about, you know, how aggregated the data has to be before the city can look at it. So it’s, it’s been quite a struggle, a struggle too other than for, of some very large commercial properties get that data. So I think that’s really interesting. Uh, also super interesting that the city is, you know, kind of putting some money in here. I was actually going to ask you, in addition to some other, you know, I’d like to hear about other things that Bloomfield has been doing as well around this energy goal, but was curious with the 750,000 that’s going to be focused on, on bill financing, did that just like come out of the city’s general fund? You, you were, you were kind of trying to clarify, I think where the money was coming from, was it coming from the utility budget? Where, where’s that money coming from? And then it’s being loaned out, right? So it eventually be paid back.

Chris Ball:  Right? So, um, so it is a utility investment. We’re not looking at it as alone. We’re looking at as an investment in the, in the, um, in the utility operations, just like we would do, you know, some utilities have gone in and put in, um, uh, devices that would allow them to manage air conditioners so that they don’t all kick on at the same time. Right? And so we’re looking at this from that perspective. How can we invest in properties in order to reduce our overall peak demand? Instead of looking at it as a loan to an owner and how do they improve their home? We’re really trying to figure out, actually we’re kind of looking at this as a storage opportunity, right? For us and battery storage is still not financially feasible, but when we start looking at if we can make homes tight and we can make them so that they’re more energy efficient than perhaps there’s an opportunity for us to work with homeowners or, or, or users, residents, if we can get their homes so that they perform well, maybe we can move some of that usage to better align with when our energy is being generated.

All right. So for example, we recently put in a sore right here. This applies about 10% of our annual energy usage. Um, of course solar peaks throughout the day time and we’re very residentially driven community in terms of energy peak. So we see our peak demands in the morning, in the winter and in the evening, in the summer. But what if we can figure out how to move that house, homing it, heating and cooling to the point, the better aligns with our energy generation. And if we, if our homes are tight and efficient and well insulated, then there’s that opportunity. There’s still of course the whole framework of how do you work with the homeowner to help them operate their homes so that it aligns with our peak production. But you can’t even get to that conversation if the home isn’t titan insulated. You know that conversation came out, how do we, it’s all about how do we look at w w we had, we had two problems. How do we store energy and how do we improve homes, right? Instead of saying, okay, here’s two problems, how can we look at the opportunity that’s being presented to us and saying instead of looking at it just as problems, what’s the solution? So if we can improve homes, improve quality of life, and make it better aligned to when we’re producing energy, then I don’t know. It just seems to make sense.

Marie Donahue: You’re listening to an interview with Chris Ball, Community Development Director for the City of Bloomfield, Iowa, as part of our Voices of 100% series from Local Energy Rules.

Do you know any folks we should interview about 100% renewable energy commitments in their community? If so, send us an email at Voicesof100@ilsr.org. That’s voices – of – 1 – 0 – 0 – at ilsr.org. Stay tuned for the rest of this episode after a short message from our Energy Democracy Initiative Director, John Farrell.

John Farrell: Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules, if you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes, as you’ve probably notices, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts, the reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead, we rely on you, out listeners, your donations not only underwrite this podcast but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and off of the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations.

Every year ILSR’s small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to ILSR.org and click on the Donate button, and if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways, you could help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it or by giving it a review iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts — Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power.

Thanks again for listening, now, back to the program.

John Farrell: Are there other, you know, we’ve talked about the, this pay as you save model for on bill financing. Uh, the investment the utility is putting into that, uh, you know, the information access through the data. Are there other big things that Bloomfield has undertaken so far toward it’s enter g independence school?
Chris Ball: Yeah, so I kind of mentioned the solar ray. So we did, um, uh, in 2017 installed a 1.8 megawatt DC, uh, solar array. That’s a single access tracking array and that provides, um, like I said, about 10% of our electricity on an annual basis. We have had Americorps members, um, for the past four years, about four years of had different Americorps members in different capacities. Uh, some of what they’ve done is they’ve done 250 home energy audits, blower door tests. Um, we, we had one summer, we call it summer of light where we had a field team of 10 Americorps members. All they did was knock on doors and offer to replace a 10 light bulbs in people’s homes. They did the work. They went in, they took out the old light bulbs, put in the New Light Bulbs. So the resident didn’t have any. All they had to do was welcoming them into their home. Uh, I think we hit a 450 homes out of about 1200 homes. And that, it’s interesting because we were, you know, we hit every house. They admit him knock on every door at least three times before they gave up. It was amazing how many people just even weren’t willing to it. It’s a lift, you know, you hit the big lifts to say, how do you hit every home? Uh, it’s tough.
John Farrell: When you say, you know, you’re knocked on every door. So people were just spoken to at least once and, and turned down the offer of free light bulbs installed for you. That’s correct. It’s really disappointing.
Chris Ball: It is disappointing because, you know, it was a lower their costs. There’s a significant savings. Just replacing one led bulb with, um, or replacing one incandescent bulb with an led is, you know, so if you do 10 of them, there was no cost to the resident. I get that. I pointed out because it just goes to show how hard you have to work to build trust, to build relationships with people in order to make some of those, even those simple changes. Right?
John Farrell: Yeah. And an energy news story. Earlier this year about Bloomfield, uh, you were interviewed and you noted that half the city’s residents have lower moderate incomes. Um, we kind of alluded to this a little bit when you talked about reaching renters through this on bill financing program. Are there other ways that the city is, is making a achieving that’s goal around energy appendant to work for these residents?
Chris Ball: But when we were looking at the, at the solar array, one of the things we’ve talked about what it is, do we put in community solar? Do we, do we look at options to help all families access cleaner? Did you being able to buy in? Ultimately we ended up doing utility owned array there for a couple of reasons. One is that the amount of money that we would have to put into the administrative side and the legal side in order to launch the community solar program, the way that we thought we would have to would just add cost to getting the solar array launched. We thought that money would be better served by just putting in the array and letting, you know, basically everybody has access to that energy because it’s distributed to the whole grid. Right. We have also, I have two, two Americorps Vista members still, you know, working with the city right now and one of them has been focused on, um, through the Dewey Sunshare program to figure out how do we develop some model that could be used here and in other communities to provide access to solar for low and moderate income folks.

We’ve come up with some ideas that we think or are kind of unique, but we haven’t launched the program yet. Um, we’re trying to figure out a way that we can partner with the community action agency and maybe perhaps, uh, use that organization as a way to access folks that have energy needs. Are, you know, are struggling to get their energy bills and that, and if there’s a way that we could, we’re trying to figure out if there’s a way that we put in a small solar ray that would be dedicated to folks that have energy needs for, you know, or trying to figure out how to fill in that gap. It frankly would be cheaper for us at this point to, instead of putting in a small solar array to give energy credits the folks. But what we, we think that the interest on the solar would give us an opportunity to say, okay, if you’re gonna, if you’re going to get access to this energy, we want to have a broader conversation that says, what kind of changes can you make in your home that makes it more efficient?

What kind of changes can you make in your day to day lifestyle that would make, make it easier for you? So, uh, we, we aren’t there yet, but I’m hoping that within the next couple months that we’ll have an outline of how that program could work. And so here’s where it, how you would access the solar energy here. Here’s the, here’s the commitment we’re looking for you for from you to access that energy. Like I said, we’re not, we’re not there yet. It’s still in development. One of the other things we’ve been trying to do is just streamline our solar policies. You know, to make it a little more clear, I guess that doesn’t directly affect, um, low to moderate income. But if you can just lower the barrier to accessing, putting in solar than it just lowers the cost for everybody.

John Farrell: Yeah. One of the things I’m curious about it, I think we’ve already heard a little bit in our conversation, but how important has it been for Bloomfield to own its energy utilities? It’s electric and gas utilities in terms of making progress toward this goal. And I, and I guess one other question I have is the energy system is changing a lot. Whether it’s the fact that people might be able to generate more of their own energy or you’re talking a lot about efficiency. How do you expect this energy goal to affect the financial viability of the utilities, which you know, in many cities are helping to contribute to the city budget?
Chris Ball: Yeah, so that I’m this great question. In our case, just as an example, we on an annual basis transfer excess revenues from our or electric utility to our general budget just to help meet needs. And it’s about a half million dollars a year right now, give or take, it goes up and down each year a little bit. So you know, one of the concerns people have is if you are reducing revenues or reducing margins than how are you going to continue to support the municipal side of things. If we can, about half of our costs currently of our electricity costs is in peak demand costs. Um, and if we can figure out how to weight, we wouldn’t be looking at, probably wouldn’t be looking at the investment and the on the on in inclusive financing and homes if it wasn’t going to also have a positive impact on our bottom line as a utility.

So we think we can actually reduce revenues but increase margins through that type of investment. I mean that’s what our initial numbers show. So, but none of that would even be possible if we didn’t have the utility in the first place. Right. So I really feel for communities that, you know, there are several small towns around us that years ago gave up their utilities and um, I think that hurt them in the long run. Uh, they don’t have the flexibility to be able to have local control. You don’t have the ability to move their resources to where they have needs. So it’s been critical for us to have the local utility in place in order to make these two to even tackle these types of initiatives in the long run.

John Farrell: When people talk about addressing climate change, building heating is a big thing. So, you know, I’m from Minnesota, Iowa, I’m sure it’s very similar. There’s a big heating load in the winter. We’re using gas in most cases to supply that heating load. I don’t know if Bloomfield’s any different in that respect, but if you have a municipal utility debt supplying that now the good news is people are talking about electrification as the solution, things like air source heat pumps. Do you see there being any like tension between the fact that you have a utility that offers both services or is that actually helpful that you know you’re really just going to be moving people from one service to another in the long run if you’re talking about efficiency or is that really not even on the radar at this point? I mean, you know, I know most of your goals been focused on electricity.
Chris Ball: Well No. What do you mean it is, it is part of the, the whole question because most of our, most of our homes are heated through natural gas and W and we even have, you know, a lot of water heaters that are natural gas and so when you start looking at any house, the, the proportion of energy that goes towards heating and cooling air and water is pretty significant, right? When you’re using natural gas for a good portion of that, then you have to certainly take into account how that’s going to have an impact. So my bigger concern is, so our natural gas utility operates in that in a way that we just have a, um, a set margin of let’s say a unit, natural gas costs seven bucks, then we have a percentage that we tack on as long as we can cover our base costs to operate these utility we’re in okay shape.

But to me the biggest concern is that when we move towards electrification here is that for an electric BTU versus a natural gas BTU is about five times the cost. And so we have to be aware of that as we’re working with consumers and saying, okay, when you’re making changes, it’s not just about being, you can’t lie. It would be very difficult for all of these, all of our folks who move straight towards electricity. I guess what I’m trying to say. Uh, we’re very fortunate that I think we’re very fortunate to have that natural gas utility. Um, obviously, uh, it’s not green. So there’s that challenge. Um, we are looking at options to say how could we supplement that the fossil fuel gas with um, uh, renewable gas. That’s a ways down the road, but it is something that we’re at least aware of and trying to figure out how do we factor that into the picture. I was just going to say we’re, one of the things that when you look at the cost of solar or wind over the last decade, it’s amazing how fast the prices dropped compared to fossil fuel electricity, right? But that it’s just not been true in the natural gas side of things yet. So it’s just one of those market factors we keep bumping up against.

John Farrell: Chris, I’m just have one last question in terms of what advice might you offer to other cities that have made ambitious energy goals, whether they define it as net zero or energy independence are 100% renewable, you know, from your work on this issue, from your experience having municipals theaters and working on them, you know, what advice would you offer folks who are setting out on this, whether it’s they’ve just made a commitment or they’re trying to figure out how to do that, what, what should they, what kind of commitments that they make and, and, and what, what’s one or two things do you think they should really look at in terms of achieving those goals?
Chris Ball: I mean, the first thing I think I would say is have lots of conversations, have lots of conversations within your community that you talk to diverse groups of people and, and, and, and have those conversations often because in our case, this sprang up really from a citizen initiative rather as opposed to a city initiative. Um, and there’s an incredible amount of, uh, knowledge and wisdom among residents. If you just take the time to talk to them. Plus it really needs to be a discussion about, with the residents so that they understand what, what the goals are and what’s trying to happen and, and need to listen and see how those goals and initiatives can be tweaked. Uh, you hit different challenges. Uh, and then likewise, there’s an incredible, there’s an incredible number of people that are really doing some fascinating things in Iowa and around the Midwest and in the country.

And just connecting with that network for me has been inspirational. Uh, it’s amazing how willing people are to share their experiences, share their knowledge and help. Um, so it’s sometimes can be discouraging when you’re in your little microcosm, so make sure you step out and, and get to know folks and, and, and uh, connected outside the community as well. You know, there’s all kinds of technical things that I think you need to look at a contract structures for you to please are a big deal. And so understanding what opportunities you’re, you’re still a contract lets you take on something you need to be aware of. Um, at the same time when you’re looking at renegotiating contracts, um, don’t do the same old way and make sure you involve other people and get different perspectives. Finally, I’d say is that I’ve been involved with this group of utilities.

Some of them are pretty good size. It’s not what for three years for research center. And the first annual meeting that I went to, it was amazing how negative all of both early my perspective at that time, my take on it was that any of those utilities really negative towards renewable energy this year, it started how far we’ve come in just two years. And that these utilities maybe not gleefully embracing renewable energy, but they understood, hey, it’s here. It’s not going away. That market forces are going to keep it here for a long time. So how do we ready our systems? How do we better understand it and recognize and recognize that that will be the energy towards in the future? So, uh, I, I guess my point is things change fast, be aware of those changes, keep looped in and, and be ready to adapt quickly.

John Farrell: Uh, I think that’s great advice, Chris. And, uh, I think there’s a lot of communities that can benefit from hearing, uh, what Bloomfield is already set out to do and this, uh, as well as communicating within their own communities. So thank you again for taking the time to talk with me about the work of Bloomfield. We’re excited to share the story and uh, please keep up the good work.
Chris Ball: Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed the conversation and uh, I look forward to hearing other hearing other stories that you talked about throughout the country. Thanks.
Marie Donahue: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of our Voices of 100% series, where our host, John Farrell was speaking with Chris Ball, Community Development Director for the City of Bloomfield, Iowa, about their commitment and action toward energy independence.

To hear from others working to invest in local, clean energy and taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system — such as another Iowa community’s fight to municipalize its electric utility — tune into the more than 75 past episodes of this Local Energy Rules podcast, including those produced as part of our Voices of 100% series.

You can find even more stories and ideas by exploring ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map, which is available at I-L-S-R-dot-org. While you’re on our website, you can also sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you can join us — in two weeks — for a special Independence Day episode of our Voices of 100% and Local Energy Rules podcast to learn about an ongoing campaign to push the city of Philadelphia and surrounding communities in southeastern Pennsylvania, to commit and transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

Until next time, keep your energy local, and thanks for listening.

What Are Bloomfield’s Energy Goals?

Bloomfield staff originally proposed setting a “net zero” electricity goal, but this language didn’t resonate with the community. Instead, talking about “energy independence” garnered much more positive feedback and support.

Ball explains that energy independence for Bloomfield means that all electricity used by the city is produced locally. While renewable energy isn’t a requirement, Ball explains that renewable technologies such as wind and solar are increasingly used by the city’s utility.

A Shift from a Utility to Community Focus

Ball’s official job title for the city of Bloomfield has shifted from Energy Efficiency Director to Community Development Director. The change in title is an example of a larger shift in how the City of Bloomfield is attempting to meet its energy goals, as the city has realized that not only energy generation and efficiency must be considered, but also more holistic factors that fall outside the scope of the municipal utility’s traditional purview. Some areas that Ball mentions include:

  • Housing improvements like addressing deferred maintenance as well as energy efficiency
  • Water quality
  • City planning and zoning

A major problem that Bloomfield is currently dealing with is housing quality. Many homes are extremely energy inefficient, which is a common problem for rural areas, especially in the Midwest. Ball explains how in addition to energy efficiency, the overall quality of housing and comfort of housing for residents matter to the city.


“We realized that becoming energy independent would require more than just looking at the utility side of things… We’re looking at not just how we produce energy…but also what other aspects within the community need to come together to meet these goals,” Ball says.

Making Progress with Open Data and On-Bill Financing

Bloomfield has a distinct advantage in attacking its energy related problems: the city has a municipal gas and electric utility. This provides the city with data that they would not have access to if an investor owned utility (IOU) was the city’s energy supplier. For example, the city provides energy use data for any building in Bloomfield for free, and on a publicly accessible website.

The data allows the city to compare the energy efficiency of its housing stock to the rest of the Midwest, showing that the average home in Bloomfield uses 66 percent more energy per square foot than in the Midwest at large. Simple modifications, such as increased insulation installation, Ball explains, could save tremendous amounts of energy (and money) for homeowners and the city.

In the next year, the municipality has committed $750,000 to improving housing through an on-bill financing program. This money is coming from the municipal utility, which views it as an investment rather than a loan, Ball explains.

Increased energy efficiency and more insulated homes can alleviate some of the burden of energy storage for the utility. Most of the city’s solar generation occurs during the middle of the day, whereas the peak demand for energy is in the morning in winter and in the evening in summer. The utility believes that increased efficiency may be able to reduce the conflict between peak generation hours and peak usage hours. The city is also considering a pay as you save model (PAYS) in order to incorporate rental properties as well as owned properties.

“If we can improve homes, improve quality of life, and make it better aligned to when we produce energy… it seems to make sense,” Ball explains.

Learn more about Pay-As-You-Save programs and other models to expand access to investments in energy efficiency and clean energy, explore resources available on our Inclusive Financing Hot Spot page.

In addition to its efficiency programs, Bloomfield installed a 1.8 megawatt solar array, which currently provides enough electricity to meet 10% of the city’s annual electricity use. The city has also had Americorps members perform around 250 energy audits and blower door tests. Finally, the city had an event called “Summer of Light”, where Americorps members knocked on doors in the community and offered to replace incandescent light bulbs in homes with LED bulbs. Light bulbs were replaced in about 450 homes out of 1200 total, Ball notes. It was an interesting social experiment, in a way, finding that only one-third of residents were willing to accept free, hand-delivered efficient lighting with willing volunteers to do the installation for them.

Reaching for Low-Income Accessibility to Solar

Half of Bloomfield’s residents are of moderate to low income. Bloomfield considered issues of accessibility for all residents when considering the implementation of the city’s solar plan. Ultimately, the city chose to install a utility owned solar array, as opposed to a community solar program, since a potential community solar program would add additional administrative and legal costs, which the city could invest elsewhere.

In addition to this investment, Bloomfield is also working to develop a model for low-income solar access. The city has some ideas — including a potential partnership with a community action agency to reach these residents — but no program has been implemented yet.

The city has also attempted to streamline access to solar for interested individuals in the community. Ball hopes that these investments and interest in solar will open the door to larger conversations about energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy in the community.

How Will These Investments Affect the City’s Municipal Utility?

Like most municipal utilities, Bloomfield’s transfer excess revenue to their general city budget. This transfer, Ball estimates, is around $500,000 annually.

Understandably, people are concerned that increased energy efficiency and reducing peak demand will drive down revenue for the municipal utility, which would effectively lower the budget of the city. Ball argues that programs like inclusive financing that improve the energy efficiency of homes could also have a positive impact on the local economy and bottom line of the municipal utility. Even as total revenues decrease, the utility’s margins would improve due to decreased costs.

Ball makes clear that municipal ownership of the utility is an important benefit — and not burden — in making Bloomfield’s plan possible. The municipal utility provides flexibility and local control that Bloomfield’s neighbors, dependent on private utility companies, lack.

For more posts about the benefits of municipal utilities and examples of communities trying to take back local control from their investor-owned utilities, explore our archive of resources on municipal utilities and municipalization efforts from across the country. 

Advice For Other Cities With Energy Goals

Ball recommends talking to diverse groups of people within the community, and having frequent conversations with residents. In fact, ideas like Bloomfield’s energy independence goal originally came from the community — making it a true community initiative that helps ensure support and buy-in from residents, he explains.

Ball also advises cities to contact the network of people across the country working towards similar goals for inspiration and advice.

Additionally, Ball notes the importance of having cities examine their utility contracts. Doing so can help determine what opportunities are already listed in this contract that can help toward the goal or make it harder to reach. When renegotiating with utilities, Ball also notes the importance of involving new people and getting new perspectives, in order to prevent following inertia or routine that may stifle innovation and creativity in how investments are made or goals are met.

Finally, Ball emphasizes the speed at which the energy landscape can change. Just a short time ago, utilities were completely opposed to renewable energy, whereas now there seems to be growing acceptance. Ball advises cities to remain flexible and embrace change.

“Things change fast… Be ready to adapt quickly,” Ball recommends.

Want to hear other stories of how communities are building local power and supporting renewable energy?

Stay-tuned for future episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast now every two weeks, including our next episode featuring a recent interview with Meenal Raval, about efforts to push the City of Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs to commit and transition to 100% renewable energy.

Episode Notes

Check out Midwest Energy News coverage referenced in this episode about Bloomfield’s innovative and accessible approach to tracking and publishing data from its utility — “Small Iowa town hopes benchmarking makes big impact on energy efficiency.”

To learn about how another small town in Iowa has been fighting for local, clean energy, we recommend listening to our earlier Local Energy Rules episode with Andy Johnson and Joel Zook about grassroots efforts in Decorah, Iowa, to create a municipal electric utility.

For concrete examples of how towns and cities like Bloomfield can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 10th episode of our special Voices of 100% series, and 79th of Local Energy Rulesan ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update. Undergraduate intern Alden Aaberg assisted with writing the summary post for this episode.

Featured Photo Credit: Jo Naylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Avatar photo
Follow Alden Aaberg:
Alden Aaberg

Alden Aaberg worked as intern with the Energy Democracy Initiative in Summer 2019. In this role, he contributed to research and podcast post content.

Avatar photo
Follow Marie Donahue:
Marie Donahue

Marie Donahue was a Research Associate with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy and Independent Business Initiatives in 2018-2019. She analyzed and wrote about the implications of corporate concentration and monopoly in these sectors.

Avatar photo
Follow John Farrell:
John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.