Improved energy storage, clean energy jobs and energy efficiency projects are reshaping the energy landscape around the world. Stevens County, Minnesota, a rural community of around 10,000 people, is at the forefront of this transformation. The community touts a public university, lots of land for research and agriculture, and determined citizens striving for a resilient local energy system.
In December, the Jefferson Center and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policymet with community members to continue the conversation about the future of local energy. Community engagement before the event revealed that community members prioritized reliability and reducing pollution as the two main goals that should drive the county’s future energy actions. At the event, we aimed to determine what local changes would help accomplish those goals. Throughout the conversation, a few main themes appeared - renewable energy, energy efficiency, batteries and storage, local energy ownership and microgrids, and district heating. But, the question remained: What would these changes look like in reality in Stevens County?
To answer that, we hosted another meeting in February where community members heard from local experts on each focus area. After listening to the presentations, participants discussed the potential benefits, challenges to overcome and action steps they could take to bring these goals to life. Finally, participants voted on the areas they’d like the community to address first, with district heating and energy efficiency rising to the top.
COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IS KEY
Before the community can start implementing their ideas, they need broader support. Participants wondered how community outreach and education could make energy efficiency and district heating appeal to more community members. When people are excited about a new technology, they may assume their neighbor is too. But everyone in the town has different familiarity with energy systems and different energy priorities. Some people may want to make energy efficiency changes to save on their electricity bill, while others may want to reduce their carbon footprint. At the same time, some residents might not want large wind turbines or solar arrays interrupting the landscape. Many people noted they’d need to have wider conversations and conduct outreach with the rest of the community to listen to concerns.
Participants also emphasized the need to make energy more accessible and affordable for everyone. Assisting and reaching low-income households is key, especially since these populations can directly benefit from energy efficiency upgrades and affordable local energy.
To tackle these issues head-on, many participants advocated for inclusive, community-wide education initiatives. Homeowners, farmers, business leaders, school board members, local government officials and the University regents should all be invited to the discussion on energy efficiency options.
PURSUING ENERGY OWNERSHIP
Over the course of the evening, participants also expressed a sense of self-reliance, independence and community pride related to energy. Microgrids and battery storage technologies can help a community become more energy independent, and are growing across the United States, especially in more remote areas. If Stevens County were to install a microgrid, it would operate as part of the main energy grid most of the time. But in case of grid failures caused by extreme weather, or a power fluctuation due to shifting wind and solar energy, a microgrid can break off and work on its own.
Creating a self-reliant energy system also means preparing for the future; community members recognized that an energy supply composed mainly of fossil fuels is unsustainable. As an agricultural community, Stevens County can take advantage of biomass and agricultural waste technology, while using other land to explore solar and wind energy. Integrating these technologies into one local system could create a strong foundation for a microgrid, and create local infrastructure projects, jobs and a cost-effective energy supply.
USING LOCAL RESOURCES
Groups noted that many proposed projects would benefit from using local resources to their advantage. For instance, the Property Assessed Clean Energy Program (PACE) allows municipalities to help local property owners make energy improvements. To bring this program to Stevens County, residents would involve the Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission and the Morris Chamber of Commerce. One group listed the local officials, including people at the energy utility, they would need to work with to create a solar garden.
Participants also discussed financial details, like budgets and feasibility studies. They recognized that before diving into any of the energy projects, it would be key to estimate the project costs and demonstrate its long-term benefits. They also considered the need to identify funding, whether that be through loans, taxes or private partnerships with the utility.
To help Stevens County accomplish their goals, we’ll continue working closely with community leaders. We’ve created a Facebook group open to all residents of Stevens County that are interested in joining the energy discussion, where we will share project updates and hear what people are thinking. We will also continue to update this resource library that organizes specific ways residents can put energy plans into motion.
As the world continues moving towards an energy revolution, Stevens County is showing that change starts from the ground up. Instead of waiting for updated energy policy and technologies to come to them, residents are taking action into their own hands and working with local leaders to create resilient local energy systems. If you’re interested in following their next steps, or our upcoming conversations in Itasca and Winona Counties, follow the Rural Climate Dialogues on Facebook!