Leading the Energy District Movement

State and federal policies and programs are critical for a clean energy future, but as in politics, ultimately all energy is local.

An Energy District is a locally-led institution that provides leadership towards a locally-owned clean energy transition.

Universal local leadership and infrastructure supporting the clean energy transformation is the key missing link, and Energy Districts provide a highly replicable and impactful model through:

  1. Quality, comprehensive, results-oriented energy planning with all energy users, including technical analysis of efficiency and renewable energy opportunities, economics and incentives, and plan development and follow-through
  2. Local investment and job/wealth creation through market transformation and the acceleration of energy efficiency and a renewable energy economy
  3. Community mobilization through action, education, inspiration, and development of an energy ethic and identity: we’re all in this together at the local and community level

Winneshiek Energy District is dedicated to building a network of Energy Districts in Iowa and beyond. We are working hard on enabling policies, funding opportunities and collaborations, and direct technical assistance to possible start-ups. If you’re interested in learning more and building an Energy District in your neck of the woods (or prairie), please contact us.

Scroll down for more resources, history, and information on the soil and water conservation district “universal local” model.

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 leaders 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 are Critical: It’s true that education, demonstration, and diverse partnerships are absolutely essential, and Energy Districts need to work in those areas. 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 the 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 coffee shop to the schools and city hall. Too often communities and societies act only when a crisis hits, or even when it’s too late – the Dust Bowl is a 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.

For more information, see the resource links below:

  • A November 2016 oped in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, explaining the “unviersal local” model of Energy Districts, and opportunity for state enabling legislation to facilitate their spread
  • An August 2016 op-ed in the Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette, explaining the importance of locally-led institutions (including Energy Districts, Watershed Districts, and Soil and Water Conservation Districts) in flood prevention.
  • April 2016 “Local Energy Rules” podcast conversation with John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
  • Our April 2015 article in Iowa County Magazine, explaining the “Universal Local” concept and opportunity behind Energy Districts.
  • Our July 2015 article in Iowa County Magazine, digging into solar energy opportunities for local government in Iowa.
  • Our 2016, 2015, and 2014 brochures and  summarizing our vision and achievements.
  • Our original Energy District concept elsewhere on this site (including additional links). It could use a bit of updating, but it’s still valid!

The Energy District “universal local” model is based on the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) model that grew out of the Dust Bown and Great Depression, and below we offer a few relevant links for those interested. SWCDs were founded on the realization that state and federal agencies needed local partners and local leadership to implement private lands conservation in every county in the country. The Roosevelt administration created model SWCD enabling legislation for states, and within 15 years almost every county in the country was covered. The SWCD model and standard enabling legislation was born in Washington and went nationwide.  Might the Energy District model and enabling legislation be a similar transformational idea born in NE Iowa and spreading outward across the country?