Innovation in Small Town America (Episode 48)

Innovation in Small Town America (Episode 48)

Date: 14 Jun 2018 | posted in: Building Local Power, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

“[T]he more I see between small towns and big cities, boy, I just really love small towns.” This quote from Christopher Mitchell, the Building Local Power podcast host and Community Broadband Networks initiative director, kicks off this conversation about the power of small towns and what they can do to build their local economy.

L-R: Christopher Mitchell, Brenda Platt, & John Farrell

Mitchell joins fellow ILSR researchers, John Farrell (the director of our Energy Democracy initiative) and Brenda Platt (ILSR co-director and director of our Composting for Community initiative), in discussing small towns and the innovative policies they enact.

Mitchell discusses Ammon, Idaho, a town that has built a fiber network and opened it to the entire community to get connected. This has improved the local business environment and ensured robust broadband competition.

Platt details findings from ILSR’s latest report, Yes! In My Backyard: A Home Composting Guide for Local Government, on how a small investment in home composting brings big returns for local governments. She also provides details about a home composting bin distribution program in Cheverly, Md., that has saved them tens of thousands of dollars and diverted more materials from the landfill.

And, finally, Farrell mentions Decorah, Iowa — a town long known for its support for locally-owned renewable energy and in the news recently for a vote that just failed to create a municipal electric utility. He charts the town’s long history with innovative energy solutions, such as creating a renewable energy district and other ways that the community is saving money and asserting local control.

After hearing all of the innovative policies that small towns enact for their citizens, ILSR co-director Brenda Platt concludes: “Whether it’s broadband, local energy, local composting, you can save money, provide better service, create local jobs, and protect the environment. So think outside the box and go local.”

Throughout the conversation, all three of our researchers mention resources that highlight their engagement with all three of these small towns across America:

  • Yes! In My Backyard: A Home Composting Guide for Local Government — Tackling the problem of food waste is gaining attention in order for communities to avoid garbage, conserve resources, create jobs, alleviate hunger, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) details how home composting is among the best opportunities to reduce food waste, especially in the near term and in areas lacking curbside collection or facilities to compost. The 90-page report found that for every 10,000 households composting at home, between 1,400 and 5,000 tons per year could be diverted from curbside collection, with potential savings in avoided disposal costs alone ranging from $72,000 to $250,000.
  • Vote for Decorah Municipal Utility Falls Short, But Local Energy Advocates Persist — With a remarkably close final result, local organizers almost achieved their goal in creating a municipal utility for this Iowa town, despite fierce opposition from the existing, investor-owned utility. While this result is a set-back, it does underscore Decorah’s commitment to locally-owned renewable energy.
  • Ammon’s Model: The Virtual End of Cable Monopolies — This 19-minute video, embedded below, runs through the movement that built and continues to push Ammon, Idaho’s community broadband network. It delves into the exciting growth possibilities and economic development opportunities of this investment.

Christopher Mitchell: Hey John, I hear that you have a number for us to kick off this week’s show.
John Farrell: Well, do you want my favorite number or a number that’s relevant to the work that I do on energy?
Christopher Mitchell: Relevance is totally overrated, but let’s stick with that.
John Farrell: 100 million, Chris. $100 million, to be exact.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and this is not just a number that happens to be in the range of numbers that Dr. Evil uses in this series of, it’d be funnier if I remembered the name of the movies.
John Farrell: Austin Powers.
Christopher Mitchell: Austin Powers, thank you.
John Farrell: No. $100 million, Chris, is the amount of money that the Winneshiek Energy District assumes leaves the county every year in Northeastern Iowa and the small town of Decorah, Iowa, because of buying energy from outside sources rather than getting it from the local community.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, I’m guessing most of that money does not go to widows and orphans.
John Farrell: You’d be right about that, Chris. A lot of it goes to utility shareholders and to the purveyors of fossil fuels.
Christopher Mitchell: Well I don’t necessarily have a problem with them, but I would sure like to see that money sticking around in Decorah and those communities a little bit more.
John Farrell: Well I can tell you a little bit more about that later, Chris, but maybe we should do some introductions. I’m John Farrell. I’m the Director of the Energy Democracy Initiative here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Christopher Mitchell: Who do we have eavesdropping over here in the corner?
Brenda Platt: Ah, Brenda Platt. I’m the head of the Composting for Community Initiative, and I’m in Washington DC.
Christopher Mitchell: Brenda’s also a co-director and one of the reasons that ILSR is still around because she’s done the unglamorous work that needs to keep organizations like ours going for many, many years at this point. I’m Chris Mitchell. I run the Broadband Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I think we’re gonna talk about small towns today, and in particular how they’re innovative and maybe don’t get the credit. I think people sometimes think of small towns as just parochial and boring places, but safe places to go. They’re much more interesting than that.
John Farrell: We’re gonna be getting a lot of mail from small towns this week after that comment, Chris. Just remember it’s Christopher@ILSR.org is where to direct your complaints if you live or grew up in a small town. Yeah, there are a lot of interesting things happening in small towns. I’m excited to talk about some things around energy. I think Brenda’s here to tell us more about composting programs. Chris, I was interested in starting with you, hearing a little bit more about what is it that small communities can do around broadband? How can they get more affordable internet access to their community?
Christopher Mitchell: Well first of all, let’s be clear that I have tremendous respect for small towns. In fact, the more I see between small towns and big cities, boy, I just really love small towns. First of all, and this isn’t the community I’m gonna be talking about but you might be surprised to find out that the first broadband internet access in all of America available on a city-wide basis, Glasgow, Kentucky. We actually made a short film about it called The Birth of Community Broadband. That was probably the first place in the entire, all of North American where you could get broadband at any address in the city because of some really sharp individuals that had done some really great work.

The community I wanna talk about today is actually Ammon, Idaho. It’s one that I’ve talked about before. I’m just curious, Brenda, have you ever heard of Ammon, Idaho, before outside of me talking about it all the time?

Brenda Platt: Not outside you talking about it, no.
Christopher Mitchell: Are you familiar with Idaho Falls at all?
Brenda Platt: Sure, a little bit.
Christopher Mitchell: Brenda has tremendous geography. John?
John Farrell: I thought we were talking about broadband not potatoes, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: Ammon is right outside of Idaho Falls. I actually don’t know how many potatoes they grow right there. Actually, my aunt is friends with lentil farmers and I know there’s a lot of lentils that come out of Idaho. Let’s stay away from the stereotypes and stick to the facts, Mr. Farrell. Ammon is outside of Idaho Falls. This is a part of the country a lot of people aren’t familiar with but they have created a new model for deploying fiber optic systems that is, I find it fascinating. It’s really practical for anyone. So much so that we’re seeing lots of other communities, from communities that are smaller than Ammon which has about 15,000 people just outside of Idaho Falls, sort of a bedroom community to Idaho Falls previously, all the way up to Spokane, Washington. We’ve seen them talking about doing something similar and they have 250,000 people. Ammon is a real trendsetter. I think there’s some characteristics that there’s a reason that this is starting in Ammon and not elsewhere.
John Farrell: I was hoping you could back up for a second, Chris, and talk about why it is that communities across the country are trying to do broadband investments. Why are communities getting into this business and not sticking to the bread and butter of water utilities and roads and that kind of thing?
Christopher Mitchell: John, it might surprise you to learn that many Americans are unsatisfied with their broadband service because it comes from very large companies that are unaccountable to them.
John Farrell: Barely audible gasp of surprise.
Christopher Mitchell: Brenda, you’re there in Tacoma Park, one of the more, it’s a wonderful place to live. You have density. You have people that have a lot of money. I’m guessing even then you have what, two options for home internet service? Probably Comcast and FiOS.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. Maybe we have RCN too.
Christopher Mitchell: So you have three options which is almost unheard of in the United States of America. Many Americans, a majority in fact, a slim majority have only access to one option for internet access or no options. What Ammon was setting out to do is, like many other communities, they want to make sure that there was a marketplace where people could have choices and not just be taken advantage of by whatever company happens to have a monopoly for service there.

In Ammon’s case, it actually didn’t start off being about what was good for residents. It was more focused on actually the municipal services because they needed to get broadband to different parts of the city. For instance, they had a swimming pool and the cost to connect the swimming pool from the incumbent carrier was much greater than the cost of them doing it themselves with fiber, in which they would basically have no recurring costs. Whereas if they went with the big company that was there already they would have not only had to pay a one-time fee but ongoing fees to keep it going. So they built it themselves. They continued building it themselves to connect areas all around the city related to their own needs. Then businesses wanted to start being connected so they started connecting some of the businesses.

Then when residents were really clamoring to be connected they came up with a new model using improvement districts, which is a very common way of financing infrastructure. We made this video that is called The Virtual End of Cable Monopolies, in which we explain exactly what Ammon’s doing. It’s got some really great interviews. Tremendous reception from people that have seen it. It’s actually helped to convince many cities around the country to consider their options.

One of the key points I wanted to make is that in Ammon this was something, it was an idea. A lot of this came out of a person, Bruce Patterson, who had started with the city as a plumbing inspector. He had really good ideas. He really got into this and he decided to apply himself to it. It ended up pioneering this new model, in part with the friendship and partnership of some other local private carriers and people working for some local rural carriers. They were all just working toward common purposes. That’s something that we see happening in small towns across America.

John Farrell: I was hoping, Chris, that you could do a couple of things. First of all, I just wanted to take a moment to flog Chris’ work here, which is to say that if you want to understand more about communities that don’t have a lot of choices around internet access, his initiative here has published a wonderful map as part of the fight around net neutrality to highlight where it is that communities, where you have competitive access to broadband, where you have choice, and the places that you don’t, and where rules of net neutrality are really gonna matter. So I just want to encourage you to find that either through ILSR.org or through the MuniNetworks website, MuniNetworks.org.

The other thing I was curious though, Chris, what I understand is that a lot of communities that have gone down this road of doing their own fiber networks, their own broadband networks have tried to finance it out of the revenues that come from the initial subscribers. You either borrow money or you’re using the revenues from your initial subscribers to build out the network. I was hoping that you could tell us a little bit about how improvement districts are used for other kinds of improvements. Like what might people be familiar with that an improvement district is used for?

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. If you’re living in an area that was annexed by a city, for instance, you might be opted in to a water district where everyone that is served by a new water infrastructure, clean water coming into your house and wastewater leaving your house, you don’t have a choice. Those are involuntary districts. That’s a way that we’ve often paid for the broadband networks. That’s a way that we’ve often paid for water infrastructure, for instance.

The interesting thing about the Ammon model is that you can opt in. If you would like service you can pay a one-time fee for the cost of connecting your home, which might be on the order of $2,500 to $3,500. Or more commonly, you would have a 20-year assessment on your home and you’d pay it off every month, $15, $16 at a time. That’s just a part of the bill. If you move, and this is something that you know all about John, from the property assessed clean energy PACE programs, if you move then the new homeowner, they get the benefit of the fiber but they also have to deal with the costs of that infrastructure. It’s very equitable also.

Ammon just breaks this out and the costs of these projects out in very intelligent ways that really make sense and allow communities to get into this without taking a lot of risk, without borrowing a whole lot of money for everyone in the community. We’re advocates of communities doing what works, so I don’t want to say that one is necessarily better than the other, but it’s really great to have options for communities to pick what’s best for them.

Brenda Platt: Well Chris, I just wanna say that video that you did on Ammon was so impressive. Not only showing access to internet service but also in showing how a community can do economic development. One of the most outstanding things in that video was the aerial view of the street and all the businesses that are attracted to Ammon versus outside the city where they don’t have high-speed internet. It’s an economic development tool. It was also dealing with securities issues as I recall. The different agencies within the local government were connected and able to respond to these other issues of high-priority for that community.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. The road that you’re mentioning is called a hit road and it divides Idaho Falls from Ammon. One of the interesting things is actually Idaho Falls does have cable service. They even have what we call dark fiber, which I’m not gonna get into. Ammon has such better access on their side that there’s just been a tremendous amount of development there. Yes, there’s public safety applications. A very hard question that we had to wrestle with was this way that they’ve dealt with public safety has to do with school shootings and trying to figure out how to talk about that in a respectful way without just appearing to get overboard with it, I think, was challenging. We’re so happy with the way the video turned out and the way our partners helped us to put it together.

We want to switch gears now. I’m curious, Brenda, you’re on the show so rarely. I’d love to get into some of the stuff that you’re working on in this brand new report that you call Yes In My Backyard. Tell us about this report and then let’s talk about some of the small towns that are doing really cool things around composting.

Brenda Platt: Yeah we just released this new report called Yes In My Backyard, YIMB, A Home Composting Guide for Local Government. It’s basically gonna help other local governments, small towns, large towns, launch their own at-home compositing programs to encourage residents to do composting at home through worms, backyard bins, and any number of other options. One of the benefits is saving money. There’s not a lot of upfront investment in doing these types of programs, which I think is a real plus. Especially if you’re in a small town and you don’t have a composting facility where you can send your food scraps and yard waste, starting a home composting program is a great way to begin recovering food scraps.
Christopher Mitchell: You know, I think that this whole idea of composting through worms provides a nice little wordplay. Compost does actually all go through the worms. The composting does after all go through the worms.
Brenda Platt: Worms are wonderful. They’re like little factories of beneficial microbes. They produce the best worm castings and worm compost that are so full of microbial life. It’s better than even hot composting in terms of what it can do for your plants. One of the reasons that we did this report is there’s been quite a growth in the country in households interested in growing their own food at home. Now recent studies said one in three households are now growing at least some food at home. So we’re trying to harness that trend to show you can produce your own soil amendments as well and save your local governments money.

I love one of the programs we documented is Orlando, Fla., where their marketing campaign was Get Dirty With Your Valentine. They launched it on Valentine’s Day. They got so much great publicity and marketing around their campaign that I think they gave out 3,000 home composting bins the first year. It’s been quite an amazing program. Then they expanded that to Get Dirty with Your Neighbor. One of the tips for replication is certainly be innovative and think outside the box.

Christopher Mitchell: Brenda, I’m curious if you can tell us, or remind us really, why local governments would care about this. I mean it seems like something nice for people to do if they want to do this. What are some actual benefits to local governments if they do increase this home composting?
Brenda Platt: Yes. One of the biggest benefits of home composting for a local government is you no longer have to collect food scraps and yard waste at the curb every week and handle it, whether at your own composting facility or at a landfill or an incinerator, if that’s what you’re opting to do. So for every ton of yard waste and food scraps that are at-home composting you’re saving the collection cost. You’re saving the hauling cost. You’re saving the processing cost. Often there are high tipping fees.

Give you an example. Cheverly, Md., in Prince George’s County, is a small town of 6,500. They invested $4,000 in providing discounted home composting bins. Over 10 years they estimate that that 4,000 investment will turn into $60,000 over the 10 year life of the bins they gave out. They have calculated that a quarter ton of organic material, food scraps and yard waste, is diverted per household per year. That can add up to a lot of savings over the lifetime of the bins that a local community gives away.

Christopher Mitchell: For people who are organizing around greenhouse gases I think there are implications in the home composting for that as well. In fact, it’s been 10 years now since you released a major report on this subject. It seems like it’s as relevant now as ever.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. The report we wrote 10 years ago, Stop Trashing the Climate, is sadly as relevant today as it was 10 years ago. When you send food scraps or rotting material to a landfill it produces methane, which is a very highly potent greenhouse gas. When you produce compost, which is a soil amendment, and you add that back into soil you’re sequestering carbon. It’s a win-win for the climate for the climate stability. If you’re concerned about reducing trash, if you want healthy soil, and if you’re concerned about jobs, composting has myriad benefits. We estimate that for every 10,000 tons that you send to a landfill you may sustain one job but if you send that 10,000 tons a year to a commercial composting facility you’re sustaining four full-time equivalent jobs. Then when you’re producing finished compost and now you’re selling that and it’s supporting landscapers or companies that are now doing green roofs or green rain gardens and the like, then you’re sustaining an additional six jobs for every 10,000 tons of material you’re diverting from disposal. Climate, jobs, soil. Check, check, check. Win, win, win.
Christopher Mitchell: Brenda, when you were doing the research for this report I have to assume that you knew a lot of these things but I’m curious if there was anything that surprised you, anything that just came out of the blue and you didn’t see coming despite all of your history on this subject.
Brenda Platt: I think the most surprising thing is the lack of attention to actually home composting over the years. It used to be more popular in like the 80s and 90s. Since the advent of more curbside collection programs, households, we’re seeing less attention paid to home composting. I think this report is really a wake-up call, that it’s the first step building a culture of composting know-how at the local level. On the small towns I’ll just say that when we did look at curbside collection which is increasing, we did a study last year. We documented how many cities, communities, counties are now collecting food scraps at curbside. That grew from 2.4 households served just three years ago to now more than five million households served in 20 states. Most of those programs are in small towns.

This is something that is growing but to add curbside collection is an additional cost. It’s additional labor. It’s additional trucks. Cheaper than disposal but still. One of the things I think, if you’re a small town and you’re looking at adding composting you can start with home composting. You can start with a drop-off program. Falls Church, Va., was one of the communities we documented. It’s a town of 14,000, a bedroom community of the greater Washington, DC area. They started with collecting food scraps at a farmer’s market. They had so much interest and people demanding like, “Hey, we want a drop-off that’s permanent, seven days a week that we can come and drop off our material any day of the week,” that they let out a contract.

They contracted with a small company called Veteran Compost that hires returning veterans. They have a permanent drop-off site. That was so popular that they decided to offer curbside collection. When they surveyed the households that signed up for curbside most of the households said, “Yeah, we started at the farmer’s market.” One lesson I can tell you for if you’re a small town is feel free, start small. There’s no one way to do this. Start with home composting. Start with a drop-off. Farmer’s markets are great.

The way that they rolled out their curbside program I thought was really thinking outside the box. They actually issued another RFP for the curbside and they awarded that to a separate small-scale company called Compost Crew. They did a shared savings with that company so a household would only pay say six dollars a month and the city paid the rest. They were able to offer the program with a very small cost to their residents without increasing their solid waste budget. Again, lots of fabulous examples from small towns all across the country.

Christopher Mitchell: Let’s shift gears a little bit to talk about one other way in which small amounts of savings or expenditures from each household really add up across a community. I think that brings us all the way back to $100 million. Decorah, Iowa, pretty great place. I think of it because I get to go through Rochester and get me some of the great barbecue of Minnesota from John Hardy’s, which is one of my favorite things in this world. So John, tell us why other people should care about Decorah.
John Farrell: Decorah is a great small community, about 8,000 folks. Northeastern Iowa, pretty close to the Minnesota border. It stands out for a couple reasons. It’s home to Luther College, it’s a liberal arts college that kind of, in a way, both got a start in and was motivated by the community’s focus on sustainability. It has a wind turbine and a set of solar panels already that help power the college and cover much of its energy use. The community, that $100 million figure is really, I think, representative of the way the community thinks about energy issues which is how do we keep more of our dollars in our local community. I think that’s a focus that really many small communities and large communities share across the country.

Their first approach to that was this notion of an energy district. It kind of brought from, it borrowed from the concept of soil and conservation districts back during the Great Depression which implemented a lot of agricultural practices to help keep soil fertile, and to increase yields, and to sustain farming communities. Their idea was what is it that we can do to keep more of that $100 million local. After the Great Recession in 2008 they got some initial federal funding. Their focus was essentially how do we help residents and businesses in the community keep more dollars local. They’ve been able to do assessments on more than 600 facilities, 600 properties in the community and help to retain more than $3 million in savings just for those users. Three million dollars that now circulates in the local economy.

Christopher Mitchell: Now I think that’s really interesting, John, but what I’m really interested in and what’s really relevant for this show in particular is building local power. You have, I think, the most relevant building local power story here about what’s happening in Decorah in order to make all this, in some ways, to supercharge this dynamic that you’re talking about.
John Farrell: What has happened in Decorah and in the surrounding community and, again, Luther College has played a role here is that they’ve continued to wanna increase their self-reliance around energy. They wanted to install a larger solar array. They wanted to get more of their energy from renewable resources, keep more of their dollars local, but they were being stymied by the electric utility. Decorah is served be an investor-owned utility. It’s headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin. Very few of its shareholders are residents of Decorah. The company is generally operated in a way to benefit the shareholders primarily and has often been hostile to the kinds of local energy production that folks in Decorah are interested in.

That led to another initiative. The energy district was one way to kind of nibble at the edges of this problem. What residents of Decorah have done is said we want to go the next step. We want to talk more about having control over our energy economy. We want more control over keeping energy dollars local. We want less resistance from an outside entity like an electric utility. They’ve talked about creating a municipal electric utility, having a city-owned utility where they have control over where the energy purchases would come from and the kinds of fees that would be charged to customers who install renewable energy, essentially more control over where their energy dollars are going.

They started this off in 2017, I mean this is the culmination of decades of conversation, with a study looking at what it would mean to form this municipal electric company. Their initial findings were that they could get more renewable energy, more local renewable energy. Iowa’s an enormous wind resource, also a fairly good solar resource. In fact, I forgot to mention earlier that the Winneshiek Energy District helped install so much solar that if you measured it against most of the large cities across the country this county would have ranked number two in solar per capita. So they had been making remarkable progress for a community in the Upper Midwest and with not the greatest solar resource in the country.

They did this feasibility study for the municipal utility and found they could save about 30% on their energy bills over continuing to take service from the incumbent monopoly company. It created this campaign. It created this big movement in the city, this big conversation about is it possible for us to take over the utility company and do we have this opportunity to localize control that can continue to extend our interest in more energy self-reliance.

Brenda Platt: John, what happened there? How did that campaign work out?
John Farrell: The campaign culminated in a referendum. It was on the ballot on the first week of May this year. The locals were outspent by the utility company four to one. The utility company spent more than $120,000 to try to convince people to stay with their more expensive service. I’m sorry to say that the local organizers came short by three votes. There was initially a five vote spread. There was a recount. Two additional votes were found in favor of the city-owned utility that they came three votes shy of a number necessary for the community to move forward, at least at this time. Iowa state law prevents them from revisiting the issue on the ballot within four years.

What I would say is that I agree with what the local organizers said in the paper afterwards. In the Decorah News they said essentially what we’ve learned is that we can have this very fruitful and thoughtful conversation in our community about what our options are and what we can do and that there are many other ways that we can explore for helping to keep more energy dollars local, that this wasn’t the beginning of the end. This was part of the conversation and a continuation of the conversation. People are gonna keep thinking about that opportunity there to save more money by localized energy. They might not be going whole-hog right now and having a city takeover of the electric company but I think Decorah has shown how small towns can really organize around these energy issues to get really impressive results in terms of building out solar in ways that save customers money and helping people reduce their energy bills, and that it doesn’t take a big city to do big things.

Brenda Platt: There you have it. Whether it’s broadband, local energy, local composting, you can save money, provide better service, create local jobs, and protect the environment. So think outside the box and go local. Signing off now from the Building Local Power Podcast, thank you for joining us.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our website, ILSR.org, and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ILSR.org. While you’re there you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. Finally, we’re nearing the end of our fiscal year and if you go to ILSR.org/donate you can help us out with a gift that helps produce this podcast, get us great guests, and produce original research on the way monopolies are impacting our economy.

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Nick Stumo-Langer
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Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.