Northeast Iowa’s Winneshiek Energy District Shows How Communities Can Capture Local Energy Dollars – Episode 35 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 28 Apr 2016 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Andy Johnson: Here in Decorah, we’re pretty confident we have more solar per capita than any other town in Iowa now and possibly any other town in the Midwest.
Matt Grimley: Iowa isn’t just the land of knee high corn and presidential candidates, it’s also home to Winneshiek County, which supports one of the highest solar uptake rates in the nation. That amazing result is largely thanks to the Winneshiek Energy District. In November, 2015, Andy Johnson, the director of the Winneshiek Energy District, joined John Farrell to talk about modeling the Soil and Conservation District for energy and how the energy district is enabling energy efficiency and renewable energy in Winneshiek County. This is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy.
John Farrell: So Andy, I think a big, overarching question that would be useful to start with would be to focus on this issue of ownership because an energy district is focused on the development of local energy resources aiding local residents and businesses. Why does it matter who owns renewable energy resources?
Andy Johnson: Yeah, good question because we haven’t mostly until now, except that we did long ago. And it’s interesting, we have a little building not far from our office here in Decorah, small town in northeast Iowa that, few people realized, but it’s actually the original municipal utility where they had a wood fired boiler there, generating energy and electric. And that was, those were the first wires sent out in around town. And so in the early days, many folks on their own energy including electrical and grid, but pretty rapidly that became consolidated into the regulated monopoly system we have now, certainly on the electrical side. And there were good reasons for that. It was certainly economic scale wise and most efficient economically and, and resource wise for probably quite a number of decades. But now that’s changed and it’s changed so fast that the energy world is pretty much in turmoil, but it’s opening up tremendous opportunities for localism, for local economies, for local people, communities and customers.

And essentially where we’ve come to, we’ve only been around as an organization for about six years now, since we started 2009. And just in that time we have certainly seen, at least in the energy world, the conversation debate shift almost entirely from whether the future is renewables. A lot of people out there may think, Well, we’re still, you know, we’re never gonna get there. We’re never gonna get within the energy world. And certainly within our world, even in northeast Iowa, it’s a done deal. The future of energy is renewable energy. The main questions that remain are how fast will we get there and will it be fast enough? Especially on the climate side and who will own it because the utilities are woken up again really quickly in the last few years. A few of ’em were aware of this a while back, but most of them have been a little bit slow to the table.

And they’re realizing that their customers and their communities and local places everywhere are realizing that they would like to take some ownership of this opportunity, of this resource, of this need. And so with, especially with distributed solar technology, that’s now an option. It’s an economical option for customers and communities and the dollars and cents are huge. So, you know, in terms of why it matters, that energy, our energy world, especially the electrical grid, is gonna transform almost entirely probably in the next generation, a couple decades, two, three decades, for what it’s been for the last century. And in that transition, communities and customers have a tremendous economic opportunity to own much of those assets and resources and keep dollars local and just one little example are here, small rural county and northeast Iowa Winneshiek probably we spend about a hundred million dollars a year on energy.

Nobody knows exactly cuz we can’t get the numbers, but that’s a lot of money and most of it leaves right out the power and gas lines and right out the fertilizer purchases. So, you know, to the degree those dollars can be kept local in recirculating a local economy, that’s one of the biggest pieces of the local economy. And it may be the biggest piece in terms of opportunities for local economic churn and development. So at the same time as we’re all working for a healthier world in a better and a better climate, we’re also working for local economies.

John Farrell: So tell me a bit about how an energy district, like the Winneshiek Energy District can help the communities there, help individuals, help businesses reverse that flow of dollars that’s leaving the community.
Andy Johnson: Right. So efficiency and renewables are essentially the two parts, to one big game here. And we can all save tremendously on efficiency. It’s not very sexy and it’s not always easy to accomplish. The numbers out there are always thrown around and said, well, 20 to 30% of just about everybody’s energy use, whether it’s a business or a home or a farm or whatnot, could easily be saved through efficiency. And it’s true that it could be a saved through efficiency, but it’s not always easy, especially when you talk, for example, whole building, weatherization, insulation and shell. So a lot of what we do actually try to do is, is actual boots on the ground, technical assistance. There are a lot of great local energy efforts out and around and doing good things. What most of them don’t do is that sort of technical analysis and implementation with customers.

And it’s not easy. There’s good reasons why people don’t do it. Traditionally, it’s been done, it’s been understood of energy auditing. Many people have had an energy audit, most unfortunately that have had an energy audit, haven’t actually implemented any major changes from it. It’s just the way the industry is has evolved over the years. So what we try to do is a, is a much broader level of energy analysis and typical audit. We try to include the efficiency and renewables opportunities. We look carefully at the economics and then we try and help people make those changes. And we’ve done this with hundreds of homes and businesses and now farms increasingly here in northeast Iowa. And to conversion rates of, you know, 50 to 95% in terms of projects that actually get done. So that work is a little bit costly and it’s a little bit intense. But we’re seeing really great results there. So of course the other side of what we do is a lot of the engagement, outreach, education, engagement, awareness and working directly on projects with partners like local governments, helping folks understand, hey, y’all could build a solar array. Here’s how it works, here’s how third party ownership works. Here are how all the incentives work and essentially being the catalyst that drives change at the local level.

John Farrell: So are the electric utilities – You kind of mentioned how, you know, we evolved from local ownership to this monopoly structure, and there were good reasons for it at the time. Are the utilities, gas and electric, helping or hindering the work that you’re doing with the energy district? You know, and maybe talk about that particularly with regards to either third party ownership of solar, which we can explain a little bit. Or community solar.
Andy Johnson: Great. We’re working pretty hard on community solar. But it’s not something that the utilities are especially open to. Nor are they open to third parties ownership in general. The utility industry is not especially friendly to local ownership. But they have reason to be, they’re a business, you know, most utilities are a business. Most customers are served by investor-owned utilities and the investor-owned utilities, of course, are in it to make a profit for investors. And that’s the way our economy works. And so it’s understandable we don’t have to have this discussion framed as good versus evil, but to the degree to which investor own utilities are in it to generate profits for their investors, those profits are not staying here in a local economy. And so, we see the regulatory battles essentially really heating up very quickly all over the country, mostly at the state level.

We really, I actually see a couple, a real divergence potentially of the utility business models, however, because on the one hand you have the investor-owned utilities and their goal is to generate profits for investors. If by almost definition those profits come out of the local communities, and that’s what we’re trying to keep in the local communities. On the other hand, we have the co-op and municipal utilities, which are by definition existing for the good of their customer owners, which is local. So it’s the city or it’s the rural residents that own rural electric co-op. And those organizations are there to only for the good of their communities and their customers to provide the energy needed. And so, you know, though they’ve all seen themselves and in most cases are still seeing themselves as one industry and speaking with one voice and lobbying and politically, I think that’s starting to change because the co-ops, the customer-owned utilities are seeing the demands and responding to the demands of their members and their local governments and their communities. And the investor own utilities are essentially still a little bit between a rock and a hard place saying, Well, yes, we would like to work with communities and we would like to respond to customers, but that potentially takes a hit to our bottom line. So there’s some real challenges there.

John Farrell: You, I think you’re doing a beautiful job of anticipating my questions in our conversation here. You know, the energy system as we’ve discussed is kind of dominated by monopoly incumbents that are regulated at the state level. And my question here, which you’ve already partly answered, I think in terms of the different kinds of utilities, co-ops or municipal or investor-owned, is how can local communities have a say? Are there, are there ways, if your community doesn’t own its own utility, if you’re not a co-op member or not a resident of a city that has its own utility, that you can have more decision-making power that you can help keep those dollars local without having to be a utility shareholder?
Andy Johnson: Great. Those are tough questions and there are a few options, but they aren’t easy ones. We’ve been struggling with them right here in Decorah. We have a couple RECs that we work with and increasingly work with, and they’re, they’re increasingly responding to the member concerns. We don’t have municipal electric utility here in town or gas in our main county seat town of Decorah we’re working. And so we’ve been working with Alliant Energy and we’ve been actually working pretty closely with Alliant Energy on some negotiations, trying to work towards community solar, trying to work towards the way in which the utility could collaborate with the town and with customers on say, one large array that people could subscribe to and have at least sort of a partial ownership. It’s been a tough uphill battle hasn’t gone anywhere yet.

We’re in the middle of negotiations as well saying, well, okay, essentially if large scale community solar isn’t an option, which is in most states is essentially a state policy step that needs to be taken like in Minnesota. Okay, Instead of a community solar project, open to all of your customers locally. Let’s talk with the local, large, local public entities because they represent the rest of us. The local government, the city, the county or local hospital, community college with the arts college are all involved in a collaborative. We’ve been working on here essentially saying, Alliant, let’s build a big, big solar array, relatively big as in megawatts kilowatts, somewhere where it fits your grid and where it’s not in the middle of town. And essentially let your largest local customers build and own pieces of that and credit their bill just as if they would if they built arrays on their rooftops, which they could do now in some places.

But that would essentially provide potential real benefits to the grid in large amounts of solar being out here in Alliant’s distribution grid where the peak power has some match and, and some real value in the frequency and voltage regulation. And it would also allow the local governments to make those fiduciary investments that are good for their citizens and their customers. Well, that hasn’t gone anywhere yet either. So you can try, you can try to talk to utility. Another route that you have is to try to talk to your regulators, which we’re also doing here in Iowa. We’re pretty active in the Iowa Utilities board cases as well as talking to policy makers. Because so much of this utility world is regulated at the state level, the federal, there’s a fair amount of federal impact, but the state regulators make the rules in most cases for their utilities.

So you talk to your state utility regulator, you talk to your policy makers and see if you can’t work on that community solar and net metering and other policies. The other, another thing you can do, which is maybe a little bit more extreme, but certainly it’s been done in Iowa by more communities than just by anywhere in the country on a per capita basis, is pursue the municipalization option. Because again, those utilities that are owned and serve, serve only their own customers locally, municipal utilities and co-ops. They’re gonna eventually, sooner or later be working in the best interest of their customers and, and moving towards a hundred percent renewables probably faster than the rest of the utility model. So Decorah, our county seat town here just passed, Tuesday, two days ago on election day, the beginnings of a fiber broadband utility with 93% of the vote, 93% voted in favor of creating a broadband utility here in Decorah and 7% voted apparently not to. That’s a pretty powerful statement of localism, of local needs, meeting local desires and local action to meet those needs. So on the energy side and electrical side, well, the same thing can happen and hopefully the utilities will end rapidly change, the energy world will increasingly and more and more rapidly work with their customers. But if not, we have to do what we can for our communities.

John Farrell: Could you share one or two accomplishments from your work at the energy district, whether it’s installation of solar, you already referenced the really high conversion rate in terms of the people you engage with adopting energy efficiency and renewable energy measures. But also then, do you have advice for how to do that? You know, what is it that makes that community engagement successful? And I’m thinking, for example, about Minneapolis with a partnership, a unique partnership with its investor-owned utilities seeking ways to reach more people and to go deeper than the traditional efforts have done.
Andy Johnson: Right. Yeah. Well that is an important part of the energy district model, and it’s not easy. But energy districts are essentially meant to be the boots on the ground as well as the preachers of what can happen and the engages of citizenry. So we’ve really worked hard at that and, and we can’t say by any means in a few short years that every citizen of Winneshiek County is great and up in a firm supporter of renewable energy and has done all their efficiency. But, we’re really moving down that path quickly. We’ve done a great deal of efficiency as we mentioned, renewable energy is on a tear here. And we’ve worked with all kinds of partners, for example, the community college there and Luther College and other entities, and solar installers. So there’s a lot of catalyzing that can be done when you have an organization whose mission is to do it.

Of course it takes energy to build that organization here in Decorah. We’re pretty confident we have more solar per capita than any other town in Iowa now and possibly any other town in the Midwest. It’s really rolling along. And again, it’s not easy to build those organizations to try something new that’s not just a subset of, say, a city government or a county government or something else, but it pays dividends. And part of what we’re really excited about now is that we’re talking with neighboring counties and startup groups nearby and far away about starting an energy district and a network of energy districts. And we think that’ll really create increasing movement awareness, power and everything else. So we’ll share resources, which to share some services, but everyone needs that local mouthpiece and catalyst for change.

Matt Grimley: That was Andy Johnson, the director of the Winneshiek Energy District, talking to John Farrell, Director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative. More information on energy districts and other policies and practices can be found on, where you can also find 34 more Local Energy Rules podcasts. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

In the follow-up from our new community-owned renewable energy report, Beyond Sharing: How Communities Can Take Ownership of Renewable Power, we are releasing the second in a series of Local Energy Rules podcasts that informed the writing of this report.

Andy Johnson works with the soil. When younger, he served in Peace Corps in Central America for three years, working on conservation practices. Then he worked in the Natural Resource Conservation Service for years, the same agency that his father Paul Johnson headed by appointment from Bill Clinton in 1993.  After moving back to northeast Iowa in 2007, he started farming christmas trees and grass-fed beef cows, but thinking about how the concept of conservation applied to his community’s energy use and economy.

When stimulus money became available in 2009, Andy used his knowledge of soil and water conservation districts to promote the idea of using those funds toward a energy district around Decorah, IA. The idea became more popular than he imagined, as he and an assembled board of directors won a federal grant.

In December 2015, Johnson talked with ILSR’s John Farrell about the Winneshiek Energy District and how they promote energy efficiency and renewable energy for all county residents, as well as what the future holds for distributed energy everywhere.

Savings and Solar

Soil and water conservation districts grew out of the Dust Bowl era, when poor farming practices exacerbated dust storms and extended droughts. Sped into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, these districts were local-state-federal partnerships that provided farmers with technical and financial assistance in sustainable land usage.

The Winneshiek Energy District — the first of its kind in the nation — works much the same way, only instead of keeping the soil on the ground, it keeps the money spent on energy within the county. The organization estimates that $100 million dollars largely leaves the county every year to reimburse the out-of-state energy interests.

The District’s primary work is home energy assessments, helping owners implement energy efficiency improvements as well as renewable energy. They’ve helped 600 houses so far, saving participants an estimated $3 million dollars. Their conversion rate, or the percentage of customers that go on to make suggested improvements, ranges from 50 to 95 percent, says Johnson.

In all, Winneshiek County has more than 190 watts of solar per person, according to numbers provided by Johnson. The county would rank second among the solar-friendliest cities in the United States.

Source: Environment America & Andy Johnson
Source: Environment America & Andy Johnson

Little Help From the Utility

Johnson understands that investor-owned utilities such as Alliant Energy have to make a profit for investors. But those profits don’t stay in the community.

“It’s a tough question,” he says about working with Alliant. The utility hasn’t been much of an ally, and has stalled on the idea of a community solar array in Decorah. “It’s been a tough uphill battle.”

The Winneshiek Energy District works with the utility, but mostly below it, with the utility’s ratepayers. It’s different from other energy districts, which are governmentally-formed zones, driven by legislation in the past decade, that create funding opportunities for renewable energy and energy efficiency — Connecticut and Ohio support some of the best examples here. Winneshiek, on the other hand, is a nonprofit, and supports more than just a municipality or a specific subset of people, says Johnson. That enabled it to offer free energy efficiency services to more than 500 households in recent years, while working with the utility on offering more general measures such as community solar gardens.

Winneshiek has met with Luther College, local governments, and other large electric customers to put pressure on the utility. Another route is participating in the proceedings of the state regulatory agency, the Iowa Utilities Board — something Johnson is doing now to defend net metering and the value of solar — or talking to state lawmakers.

Local control of energy, at the very least, can be helped most by the municipal or cooperative utilities of the state, or even encouraging a town to form their own utility. Johnson predicts that most municipal utilities and co- ops will be working sooner or later toward 100% renewable energy. “Hopefully the utilities, in the rapidly changing energy world, will increasingly and more and more rapidly work with their customers,” he says. “But if not we have to do what we can with our communities.”

Thanks largely to the Winneshiek Energy District, renewable energy is on a tear in Decorah, representing what a little bit of local energy planning can do for people. Now Johnson is talking to other people in other states who want to do the same thing.

“Energy districts are essentially meant to be the boots on the ground as well as the preachers of what can happen.”

This is the 35th edition of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Director of Democratic Energy John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion. Other than his immediate family, the audience is primarily researchers, grassroots organizers, and grasstops policy wonks who want vivid examples of how local renewable energy can power local economies.

It is published intermittently on, but you can Click to subscribe to the podcast: iTunes or RSS/XML

This article originally posted at For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter or get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Photo Credit: Good Free Photos via CCO/Public Domain License

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Matt was a research associate with ILSR's Energy Democracy Initiative, where he published articles and reports on local, renewable energy solutions.