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Blazing a new energy frontier

Blazing a new energy frontier
Andy Johnson with the Winneshiek County Energy District says the group helps farmers and others find energy savings and determine if renewable energy projects like solar panels are a fit for their situation.

Farmers in Iowa and around the United States have for decades relied on county-centered soil and water conservation districts for technical assistance and tools as they work to reduce soil loss and protect water quality.

Now citizens of Winneshiek County in northeast Iowa are replicating that locally-based approach with energy.

The Winneshiek County Energy District (WCED) created the nation’s first county-wide energy district to both conserve energy and help citizens generate more renewable energy locally. The seven-year-old organization has become a fixture in Winneshiek County and is attracting interest from other Iowa counties, as well as from other parts of the country.

"The goal of the WCED is to find ways to keep more of the dollars that we spend on energy working in our own communities instead of flowing out," said Andy Johnson, the organization’s director. "The dollars that are saved on energy, or used to pay local contractors, then can help create local economic development."

Much like a county soil and water conservation district, the WCED is designed to offer farmers and others with technical assistance, Johnson said. It provides energy audits and evaluations on whether solar or another renewable energy source makes sense for a farm, a business or a homeowner in town, he said.

But the WCED doesn’t stop there. It also provides practical tools, such as information on contractors, available tax breaks and other tools to help clients make improvements and realize energy savings, he said.

"The idea is to get things done by getting boots on the ground," Johnson said. "The soil and water district model of a coordinated and cooperative approach has worked well to promote soil conservation and water quality, so it just made a lot of sense to us to use the same model for energy."

Johnson, who was raised on a farm near Decorah, is very familiar with the soil and water conservation district structure. He worked on conservation projects for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Georgia before moving back to Iowa and the "home place" with his family.

Johnson, along with others, launched the WCED in 2010 as a non-profit organization. The organization is funded by grants, donations and fees for services. It is governed by a board of directors made up of Winneshiek County business and community leaders.

Farm focus

A key focus for the WCED is helping farms find ways to reduce energy consumption, Johnson said.

"Building solar installations or other r­­e­newable energy structures is seen as sexy, but first we really want to look at ways to improve efficiency. It is really the core of what we do," he said.

The WCED offers comprehensive farm energy planning services for farms in Win­­neshiek County and several neighboring counties. The fee-based services are designed to help farmers identify energy-saving opportunities and a determination of which upgrades hold the most potential for decreased energy consumption and quickest payback.

Farms can often find some of the quickest paybacks by replacing conventional lighting with LED bulbs, Johnson said. "The LEDs are really the low-hanging fruit for us because the payback is so quick," he said.

Grain farmers can often find savings by updating their grain-drying equipment, Johnson said. Dairy farmers can also realize savings because their pumps, coolers and other equipment use a lot of electricity, he said.

The WCED can help farms, businesses and homeowners determine whether adding a solar array, or another renewable energy source, makes economic sense.

The organization can help clients find a contractor to install the solar generator, work with local power suppliers to determine how the generator will fit with the existing grid and work through the maze of tax credits and other energy programs that can help offset the installation costs, Johnson said.

"We really have strong relationships with the local RECs (Rural Electric Cooperatives) that service our area," Johnson said. "They are also very locally focused and share the same goals of promoting the local economies."

Although there are some wind turbines in Winneshiek County, much of the renewable energy focus has shifted to solar, Johnson said. Solar cells have become more efficient and cost effective and require very little maintenance, he said.

With more people interested in solar power systems, a number of local electrical contractors have started to install them.

"We really had only one in the area when we started, now we have a half dozen installers in Winneshiek County alone," Johnson said. "That’s been good because, once again, it keeps more money in our community and creates jobs."

For more information on the Winneshiek County Energy District, go to https://energydistrict.org/.



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