Winneshiek Energy District

What is an Energy District?

The idea of Energy Districts grew out of the history of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs). These districts emerged from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and were the key “local” in what rapidly became a locally led but nationwide struggle to combat soil erosion, protecting both natural resources and economic health of landowners and communities.

Nowadays we face another perfect storm of economics (rapidly rising energy prices) and resources (human-induced climate change), and we believe an Energy District movement modeled after the Soil and Water Conservation District movement holds great promise.

We’re giving it a try, won’t you join us and form an Energy District in your neck of the woods?  Read on to better understand the defining characteristics of an Energy District, see the sidebar for more detailed writings, and consider joining in and building a national network of locally-led Energy Districts.

Energy District Core Concepts

While it’s true that energy districts as proposed here would be in part a government supported effort, they are the best kind: a local-state-federal partnership, with local leadership at the core, catalyzing services rather than creating entitlements, and leveraging and stimulating markets rather than replacing them. To be effective at ramping up community-wide energy transformation, energy districts must work at both the customer and community levels, with the following characteristics:

  • Local, Lasting, Independent, and Passionate: Local leadership of a state- and national scale is what's been missing for so long. Districts need to build a movement and help and inspire our neighbors from the ground up. They need to be in it for the long haul, be free of undue political influence and independent of industry (though bent on collaboration), and absolutely passionate about transitioning quickly to a sustainable energy society.
  • Universal Technical Assistance and Energy Planning is Critical: It's true that education, demonstration, and diverse partnerships are absolutely essential, and Energy Districts need to work in those arenas. The soil and water districts and their state/federal partners realized very early that they needed boots on the ground, technically-trained conservationists to work with every landowner, do the analysis, develop a conservation plan, and help find the resources to implement that plan, and they continue to do so to this very day. Energy Districts have correctly aligned incentives, the local stature, the resources (with adequate higher-level support - see next bullet) to put those energy conservationist boots on the ground, and the ability to accomplish county/community-wide building retrofits and energy transitioning more quickly and efficiently than any other approach.
  • Coordination and Integration: A network of energy districts will logically share approaches, experiences and resources, and many of those resources ought to come from partner organizations at higher levels. From development of uniform technical energy analysis and planning tools to the training of energy conservationists to managing extensive database/IT networks, state and federal agency support of a national network of energy districts will be critical. And yes, to enable the retrofitting and re-energizing America, major funding for those "boots on the ground" and the financial incentives for customers will also need to come from these higher levels.
  • Community investment opportunities: There is tremendous power in money, and tremendous human capital in community. Combining the multi-trillion dollar net present value opportunity of energy efficiency and renewable energy with the growing movements of localism and sustainability could represent the greatest public-private reimagineering opportunity communities have ever faced. Creating legal and financial structures to enable locally-led energy districts to harness that capital – and provide security and confidence to investors – will open a world of opportunity.
  • An Energy Ethic: Energy Districts cannot be about a bit of insulation here, a solar panel or hybrid-electric car there. They must be the true preachers of the gospel of sustainable energy, from main street to the cornfield, from the coffeeshop to the schools and city hall. Too often communities and societies act only when crisis hits, or even when it's too late - the Dust Bowl is prime example. As energy districts we must create enough local engagement and momentum that we cross the tipping point of near-universal persuasion and action. As we wrote in our 2007 Des Moines Register oped:

Many good things are already happening at the local level. Utilities - investor-owned, local and rural electric cooperatives - carry out energy audits and efficiency programs. Community Action and others carry out weatherization programs. And individual Iowans across the state have taken leadership and are saving energy in a thousand different ways.

The point is not that nothing good is happening at the local level; it is. But so far, it's hit or miss and hasn't achieved the needed level of community motivation, social expectation and individual responsibility. Locally led soil conservation in the 1930s resulted in a land ethic in Iowa farmers. Although in need of constant revival, it has made a real difference.

Energy districts spread across the state and eventually across the country would bring a similar message to every classroom, main street, courthouse, gravel road and home - that avoiding this pending disaster is the responsibility of each and every one of us.

An energy ethic needs to take root in Iowa that will make a world of difference. Who knows? We could even become a national leader - again.