It’s hard to imagine a place more bucolic than the rural farming communities clustered around Kalona, Iowa — the kind of place that for generations has embodied conservative, blue-collar values woven throughout rural America.
Nestled in the gently rolling hills of southeastern Iowa, it’s at first difficult to tell what sets Kalona apart from countless similar places on the Midwestern landscape. Small towns like these form the backbone of a region whose economy depends on a rich farming tradition, even well into the 21st century.
But Kalona’s charm doesn’t obscure the innovation that makes it a national leader in clean power generation. In this small community, where many Amish and Mennonite families shun electricity and cars, solar power has proliferated. In fact, the Kalona area is a surprising national leader in solar power generation.
The local solar movement traces back to Farmers Electric Cooperative, the utility serving 605 households and businesses in Kalona and its surrounding villages. Per capita, Farmers Electric generates 3,719 watts of solar power per subscriber — 76 percent more than the next utility! The utility, owned by its customers, offers a window into how community-minded thinking can shape sensible energy policy and reinvent the local economy.
Eight years after Farmers Electric launched a fierce campaign to integrate renewables into its energy mix, it’s obvious that solar has caught on. Skeptics were slow to opt in to clean power in the beginning. But now, in Kalona, solar power is the norm. They line the roofs of farmhouses and other local businesses, and ground-mounted arrays power other agribusiness operations.
What started with a single pilot array at a local high school has grown into a robust distributed generation network including farmers, homeowners and business owners cashing in on clean energy. Even as customers save money, more of their energy dollars stay within the community, boosting the local economy.
Farmers Electric remains an outlier in promoting solar so aggressively, but its approach provides a blueprint for other power providers.
“Solar is like the electric car. I think people see it as the future, basically, in technology,” said Warren McKenna, who heads up Farmers Electric and spearheaded its solar plan. “If you make it easy, I think they’re going to grab a hold of it. It’s been very, very popular with our customers.”
There is no single path to unlocking the economic and community benefits seeded by solar, captured widely in Farmers Electric’s territory. Still, the unexpected success in bringing widespread solar generation to a tiny farming community about 30 miles south of Iowa City offers a pivotal lesson: it all comes down to the money.
Farmers Electric harnessed the power of the dollar to gets its solar campaign off the ground, and keep it going. In order for the program to succeed, McKenna knew early on that it had to provide a financial boost to co-op members — the environmental benefits, he says, were an unspoken cherry on top. Continue reading