Part one in a multi-part series highlighting successes of Clean Energy Districts (CED) and policies to make CEDs “universal local” institutions. Read part twopart three, and part four.

Technological innovation is all the rage in the clean energy world.

What if we could build an innovation to accelerate customer-owned solar 10x, bend the arc of the clean energy transition towards inclusion, and create durable clean energy prosperity throughout rural (and urban) America?

Such an innovation exists. It is less “traditional” technology than “social change technology”: A “universal local” institutional model called a Clean Energy District (CED). They are grassroots organizations championed by ordinary citizens, each passionate about energy efficiency planning, helping underserved neighbors save money, and/or committed to climate stewardship. Both red and blue-leaning volunteers who lead the 10 districts already created in Iowa have seen solar installation accelerate x 10, tens of millions dollars saved through energy planning, and hundreds of jobs created. They are the local implementers of the clean energy transition. The CED model began with the rural Winneshiek Energy District (WED) in northeast Iowa in 2010, and the network now encompasses rural and urban counties across eastern Iowa.

“We are accustomed, arguably conditioned, to look to state and federal government for help on local issues. We ought to look to local initiatives and leadership,” says former Winneshiek County Supervisor Dean Thompson. “WED shows how to do local. How to chart a sustainable course for clean energy across the cultural and economic landscape we call home.”

Clean Energy Districts are organized by county as nonprofits. They are the “last-mile” implementers of the clean energy transition, and as described in Geography of Change, a few key principles guide them:

  • Local leadership exists everywhere. Energy Districts create independent, “universal-local” institutions led by citizens passionate for clean energy and driving change.
  • Energy is complicated, and Energy Districts lead by doing. Quality technical assistance (energy planning) for energy users, paired with active market transformation, leads to adoption of energy efficiency, customer-owned solar, electrification, storage, and builds a flywheel of momentum.
  • When Green Meets Green, communities unite and thrive. Locally-owned energy efficiency and renewables create jobs, retain wealth, and build energy prosperity (one Green), and simultaneously advance climate stewardship (another Green).
  • Energy Districts are geographically and socio-economically inclusive, and universal replication is fully possible. We all do better when we all do better, and the clean energy future will happen of, by, and for the people. 

Replicating a Model of Success

Clean Energy Districts are modeled after a vital, rural movement from the first half of the 20th century – Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

The 1930s brought the greatest of perfect storms to Middle America: The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Local conservation farming champions needed structure and resources, and federal agencies needed local partners to help put boots on the ground and unify communities.

Soil and Water Conservation Districts became the “universal local” solution in nearly every county in the country within a decade. This model from our past is a solution for our present, and it’s working.

In rural Winneshiek Energy District, over $20 million has been invested in locally owned energy efficiency and renewable energy, with over $35 million in wealth created and retained during project lifespans, and over 200 jobs. Over 1,000 low-income households have been provided free energy efficiency assessments, combustion safety testing, and lighting installation. The roughly 8 megawatts of locally owned, distributed solar represents nearly 400 watts/person, a level 10x higher than the rest of Iowa and much of the Midwest, and 3-4x the levels of distributed solar-leading states such as New York and Maryland. 

Clearly, well-organized local leadership and institutions, providing quality technical assistance and market transformation, accelerates an inclusive locally-owned clean energy transition. The design of the CED model, it’s grounding in a historical parallel, and the current growth of the CEDI network suggest the model’s broader implementation potential is qualified only by the obvious question of resources. 

Next Steps for Clean Energy Districts

The Clean Energy Districts of Iowa in partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque is working to leverage impact in the current 10 Iowa CEDs, and grow more local champions in new districts to relieve energy burden and retain wealth in their communities. Donors can invest to help us grow the network and use their voice to advocate for state and federal policy support akin to that of the Soil and Water Conservation District movement of the last progressive era.

We have a roadmap, and a proven change-making vehicle. Within a network of community foundations, and an investment of $950K annually for five years, we can plow up readiness and plant this perennial solution county by county in fly-over country.


By Andy Johnson, Executive Director, Winneshiek Energy District and M.J. Smith, Director of Affiliate Foundations, Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.