Voices Of 100%: Small Iowa Town Pushes For Energy Independence

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Originally published at ilsr.org.

How does a small city in southeastern Iowa plan to achieve energy independence and join the more than 100 cities across the country that are working toward ambitious goals to generate their electricity from renewable resources?

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell spoke with Chris Ball, Community Development Director for the town of Bloomfield, Iowa. Bloomfield is a small town in southeastern Iowa with a population of about 2,600 people, aging homes, and its own municipal electric and gas utilities. At the urging of the town’s residents, Bloomfield is now pursuing ways to expand energy independence and reduce their reliance on imported energy by investing in solar, energy efficiency, and more.

Listen to the full episode to learn how the town is taking action to support local, clean energy, and explore more highlights and resources, below — including a transcript and written summary of the conversation.

Episode Transcript

What Are Bloomfield’s Energy Goals?

Bloomfield staff originally proposed setting a “net zero” electricity goal, but this language didn’t resonate with the community. Instead, talking about “energy independence” garnered much more positive feedback and support.

Ball explains that energy independence for Bloomfield means that all electricity used by the city is produced locally. While renewable energy isn’t a requirement, Ball explains that renewable technologies such as wind and solar are increasingly used by the city’s utility.

A Shift from a Utility to Community Focus

Ball’s official job title for the city of Bloomfield has shifted from Energy Efficiency Director to Community Development Director. The change in title is an example of a larger shift in how the City of Bloomfield is attempting to meet its energy goals, as the city has realized that not only energy generation and efficiency must be considered, but also more holistic factors that fall outside the scope of the municipal utility’s traditional purview. Some areas that Ball mentions include:

  • Housing improvements like addressing deferred maintenance as well as energy efficiency
  • Water quality
  • City planning and zoning

A major problem that Bloomfield is currently dealing with is housing quality. Many homes are extremely energy inefficient, which is a common problem for rural areas, especially in the Midwest. Ball explains how in addition to energy efficiency, the overall quality of housing and comfort of housing for residents matter to the city.

“We realized that becoming energy independent would require more than just looking at the utility side of things… We’re looking at not just how we produce energy…but also what other aspects within the community need to come together to meet these goals,” Ball says.

Making Progress with Open Data & On-Bill Financing

Bloomfield has a distinct advantage in attacking its energy related problems: the city has a municipal gas and electric utility. This provides the city with data that they would not have access to if an investor owned utility (IOU) was the city’s energy supplier. For example, the city provides energy use data for any building in Bloomfield for free, and on a publicly accessible website.

The data allows the city to compare the energy efficiency of its housing stock to the rest of the Midwest, showing that the average home in Bloomfield uses 66 percent more energy per square foot than in the Midwest at large. Simple modifications, such as increased insulation installation, Ball explains, could save tremendous amounts of energy (and money) for homeowners and the city.

In the next year, the municipality has committed $750,000 to improving housing through an on-bill financing program. This money is coming from the municipal utility, which views it as an investment rather than a loan, Ball explains.

Increased energy efficiency and more insulated homes can alleviate some of the burden of energy storage for the utility. Most of the city’s solar generation occurs during the middle of the day, whereas the peak demand for energy is in the morning in winter and in the evening in summer. The utility believes that increased efficiency may be able to reduce the conflict between peak generation hours and peak usage hours. The city is also considering a pay as you save model (PAYS) in order to incorporate rental properties as well as owned properties.

“If we can improve homes, improve quality of life, and make it better aligned to when we produce energy… it seems to make sense,” Ball explains.

Learn more about Pay-As-You-Save programs and other models to expand access to investments in energy efficiency and clean energy, explore resources available on our Inclusive Financing Hot Spot page.

In addition to its efficiency programs, Bloomfield installed a 1.8 megawatt solar array, which currently provides enough electricity to meet 10% of the city’s annual electricity use. The city has also had Americorps members perform around 250 energy audits and blower door tests. Finally, the city had an event called “Summer of Light”, where Americorps members knocked on doors in the community and offered to replace incandescent light bulbs in homes with LED bulbs. Light bulbs were replaced in about 450 homes out of 1200 total, Ball notes. It was an interesting social experiment, in a way, finding that only one-third of residents were willing to accept free, hand-delivered efficient lighting with willing volunteers to do the installation for them.

Reaching for Low-Income Accessibility to Solar

Half of Bloomfield’s residents are of moderate to low income. Bloomfield considered issues of accessibility for all residents when considering the implementation of the city’s solar plan. Ultimately, the city chose to install a utility owned solar array, as opposed to a community solar program, since a potential community solar program would add additional administrative and legal costs, which the city could invest elsewhere.

In addition to this investment, Bloomfield is also working to develop a model for low-income solar access. The city has some ideas — including a potential partnership with a community action agency to reach these residents — but no program has been implemented yet.

The city has also attempted to streamline access to solar for interested individuals in the community. Ball hopes that these investments and interest in solar will open the door to larger conversations about energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy in the community.

How Will These Investments Affect the City’s Municipal Utility?

Like most municipal utilities, Bloomfield’s transfer excess revenue to their general city budget. This transfer, Ball estimates, is around $500,000 annually.

Understandably, people are concerned that increased energy efficiency and reducing peak demand will drive down revenue for the municipal utility, which would effectively lower the budget of the city. Ball argues that programs like inclusive financing that improve the energy efficiency of homes could also have a positive impact on the local economy and bottom line of the municipal utility. Even as total revenues decrease, the utility’s margins would improve due to decreased costs.

Ball makes clear that municipal ownership of the utility is an important benefit — and not burden — in making Bloomfield’s plan possible. The municipal utility provides flexibility and local control that Bloomfield’s neighbors, dependent on private utility companies, lack.

For more posts about the benefits of municipal utilities and examples of communities trying to take back local control from their investor-owned utilities, explore our archive of resources on municipal utilities and municipalization efforts from across the country. 

Advice For Other Cities With Energy Goals

Ball recommends talking to diverse groups of people within the community, and having frequent conversations with residents. In fact, ideas like Bloomfield’s energy independence goal originally came from the community — making it a true community initiative that helps ensure support and buy-in from residents, he explains.

Ball also advises cities to contact the network of people across the country working towards similar goals for inspiration and advice.

Additionally, Ball notes the importance of having cities examine their utility contracts. Doing so can help determine what opportunities are already listed in this contract that can help toward the goal or make it harder to reach. When renegotiating with utilities, Ball also notes the importance of involving new people and getting new perspectives, in order to prevent following inertia or routine that may stifle innovation and creativity in how investments are made or goals are met.

Finally, Ball emphasizes the speed at which the energy landscape can change. Just a short time ago, utilities were completely opposed to renewable energy, whereas now there seems to be growing acceptance. Ball advises cities to remain flexible and embrace change.

“Things change fast… Be ready to adapt quickly,” Ball recommends.

Want to hear other stories of how communities are building local power and supporting renewable energy?

Stay-tuned for future episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast now every two weeks, including our next episode featuring a recent interview with Meenal Raval, about efforts to push the City of Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs to commit and transition to 100% renewable energy.

Episode Notes

Check out Midwest Energy News coverage referenced in this episode about Bloomfield’s innovative and accessible approach to tracking and publishing data from its utility — “Small Iowa town hopes benchmarking makes big impact on energy efficiency.”

To learn about how another small town in Iowa has been fighting for local, clean energy, we recommend listening to our earlier Local Energy Rules episode with Andy Johnson and Joel Zook about grassroots efforts in Decorah, Iowa, to create a municipal electric utility.

For concrete examples of how towns and cities like Bloomfield can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 10th episode of our special Voices of 100% series, and 79th of Local Energy Rulesan ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update. Undergraduate intern Alden Aaberg assisted with writing the summary post for this episode.

Featured Photo Credit: Jo Naylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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John Farrell

John directs the Democratic Energy program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His seminal paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.   Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.   John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at jfarrell@ilsr.org.

John Farrell has 518 posts and counting. See all posts by John Farrell