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

I am a retired math teacher, gardener, and grandfather. This is a personal account of how people just like me are leading and owning the clean energy transition in the U.S., even in places like red-leaning northeast Iowa.

Clayton County, with 17,000 residents, has 18 towns, many small farms on rolling hills and abuts the Mississippi River on the east. My first contact with the Clean Energy District (CED) model came through my role as chair of our county community foundation, an affiliate of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque (CFGD). Andy Johnson, founder of the Winneshiek Energy District (WED) told us about his Geography of Change model and challenged us to think about forming our own district. I was intrigued to explore how rural folks of all political stripes and backgrounds could agree on saving money on energy.

With the assistance of CFGD and friends, I called people who were interested in retaining local dollars and learning about generating (solar) electric power. These were farmers, business owners, government officials, pastors, and community leaders, some who already owned solar. I did not mention the words “climate change” in my conversations.

About 25 people came to the first meeting in a community room at a bank. After an introduction to the CED model, participants asked lots of questions. Near the end, we asked the straight-forward question about who was going to take this idea to the next level by serving on the board. All who raised their hands were recruited.  At the next meeting, a banker, a retired dentist, a dairy farmer, a state senator, a small business owner, a doctor, a retired mathematics teacher, and two high school students showed up and we started to work. Web design and accounting skills were particularly helpful. Everyone made connections with friends and associates.

Soon we had a name -- “Clayton County Energy District” (CCED) -- and set broad goals. We elected officers, established by-laws, incorporated through the Secretary of State, and attained 501(c)3 status.

As volunteers, we simply rolled up our sleeves and together:

  • Opened a bank account
  • Designed a logo and website 
  • Printed materials and gathered contacts
  • Met with certified solar installers and “solar experienced” electricians who became partners 
  • Established a membership framework
  • Established a realistic budget
  • Executed a solar workshop for 85 persons 
  • Continued the workshop model around:
    • LED lighting
    • Energy conservation and LED transition for farmers
    • Solar energy for non-profits (churches, nursing homes, schools, and governments)
  • Worked with Green Iowa Ameri-Corps and WED to do energy assessments (provided free to handicapped, elderly, veterans and low-income)
  • Continued to fundraise 
  • Hosted quarterly “energy breakfasts” with speakers 
  • Met people through the county fair, farmers market, and art festivals
  • Met with local politicians to discuss our objectives
  • Promoted the model around Northeast Iowa

Each of these steps paid off and as we grew, CFGD connected us to both philanthropic families and grant opportunities. What a boost to our spirit and ambition. We hired a part-time coordinator who organized and coached our volunteer board toward workshops, projects, and community engagement. Donors make it possible for grassroots efforts to grow and maintain momentum. 

Now, five years later, CCED, a project I was privileged to start with a team of organizers, is a homegrown institution accelerating clean energy acceptance like a flywheel gaining momentum. We’ve changed thousands of light bulbs, and partnered with city municipal utilities to expand their energy efficiency and solar programs. We’ve successfully promoted solar and transformed the marketplace so that locally-owned solar contractors are busier than ever and driving the market even faster.

As this local partnership builds, the benefits of locally-owned energy efficiency and solar become clearer, and the red-blue divide we hear about daily seems farther away. Clean energy is less about ideology, and more about community prosperity and responsibility. Energy Districts are inclusive and replicable. Regardless of age, gender, race, lifestyle, socioeconomic status, or geography, energy districts exist to benefit everyone. Universal replication is fully possible. The “champions” in my experience used homegrown engagement. Passion for fair, local clean energy is what has brought us together and keeps us moving forward.  

Localism and ownership are powerful ideas in rural America. The point isn’t just that we formed a CED in a rural/red county, but that the CED model can work everywhere because there are people everywhere ready and willing to work for their communities. 

Donor funds to support grassroots movements give local efforts a financial boost to carry on and expand their important work. To participate in a locally-led sustainable solution, support efforts like Clayton County Energy District and help rural counties overcome the financial challenges they face.