Enhancing community economies with local energy

By Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The competition to keep a local economy healthy has intensified with offshoring jobs and access to cheap international labor. Advocates of growing the local economy often think it terms of luring another industry or service to their community. The competition is intense and in some ways the chances of winning are similar to that of winning the lottery.

Another approach to improving the local economy which is often overlooked is investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Early examples include the dramatic lowering of energy costs in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, when the decision was made to move the business district off the floodplain to avoid frequent flooding and the associated expenses. A solar business district was constructed on higher ground with the stipulation that 50 percent of each building’s energy must come from the sun. Different approaches were used, producing models for other towns to emulate.

Another was the decision of Osage, Iowa, to invest in energy efficiency rather than buy new backup fossil generators. Energy cost savings of over $1.2 million annually resulted for the community of roughly 4,000 people. All new construction and major upgrades were required to  have 2×6 wall construction instead of 2×4. Their efficiency program has expanded dramatically over the years and now includes incentives for renewable energy. A more recent example involves Freiburg, a small German town which utilized local renewable energy sources to produce jobs, incomes and energy savings.

At the 2014 Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Mayor Bob Dixon of Greensburg, Kansas, described how, after a tornado, his town rebuilt as a thriving green community utilizing energy efficient techniques and appliances along with renewable energy sources.

Now a similar effort is underway in Bloomfield, Iowa.  With a dwindling population and lost businesses, the town faced a bleak future until leaders and citizens decided to use local renewable energy sources to grow it and its economy. The Sunday Keynote speaker, Chris Ball, Energy Efficiency Director for Bloomfield, will tell his story. Many of the practices being implemented there can be applied in our communities. Given the large number of small towns in similarly dire straits in our area, the money necessary to make similar transitions will provide secure, proven savings for those implementing similar actions

Another effort gaining momentum is that of installing solar systems on municipally owned buildings. Targeting government facilities will lower their operating costs while providing jobs, saving tax dollars, enhancing the local community and lowering carbon emissions.

Dave Merrill will present a workshop explaining how large solar projects can be a valid financial investment for farmers, businesses and municipal buildings. The payback time for installations is short and the equivalent rate of return is high. Aur Beck will report on a solar installation producing 20 megawatts of power – enough to power 3,280 homes – which has been approved for Carbondale after disagreements were settled. The Byron Forest Preserve and the Oregon Park District already make use of renewable energy sources.

Presentations and vendors at the Fair will provide more details of what is involved in going solar, improving efficiency and using other local energy sources. Fair visitors can learn about how the local economy can grow using renewable energy.

Major sponsors of the Fair are the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, The Rock River Times, Ogle County Solid Waste Department and Northern Public Radio.

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