Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Report date
December 2018

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

The dialogue process continues to be a powerful tool for engagement that leads to action. The inclusion of diverse voices throughout our target counties, interacting in a respectful and in-depth way, is helping communities embrace change in a way that allows them to be proactive in addressing the challenges of climate change and the transition to a clean energy economy. Key to this success is the sense of community ownership that the discussion entails. Participants in all three counties are continuing to express their enthusiasm for involving their fellow community members in a just transition to renewable energy. Without the intense periods of preparation and follow up to the events we have hosted in the last year, it is quite likely that momentum would stall, as we have seen in community engagement approaches that employ more of a "drop in" model. We are going to continue to hone this model as we look towards working in new communities in 2019, specifically on the topic of siting wind and solar energy projects.
IATP's ability to serve as a bridge between the dialogue counties and other units of government has produced tangible results that, we believe, will make the energy transition smoother and on a larger scale for rural communities. In the past year, we have taken the findings of the dialogues and presented them to several Minnesota state agencies to better inform their offerings for rural Minnesotans. A large component of this has been a State Program Navigator makes it easier for rural governments, businesses, and households to understand and access state offerings available to them. The State Program Navigator includes cross-agency program offerings, case studies, application instructions, and more. We created a site map, a work plan for moving forward, and a feedback letter for state agencies to improve program presentation. We are working to assemble a steering committee to advise Navigator build-out. We are also in close contact with the Environmental Quality Board, who are consistent advisers on policy matters and navigating the state bureaucracy as we continue to effect change.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

This question is hard to answer because it is exactly the above elements that make the process successful. The ability to carry out this work over a long period of time is certainly critical to its success, as being free from time constraint is critical to building those elements. Additionally, honoring and acknowledging the communities' expertise in their community and the ability to adapt to meet each communities individual needs has been allowed those elements to flourish in the decision making.

Understanding the problem

The creation of space for rural communities to engage on climate policies remains a critical component to addressing the infrastructure needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In the next phase of this work, we are looking to dive into the community challenges of building that infrastructure. A massive build out of wind and solar energy is needed to meet the decarbonization goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. This presents a major economic development opportunity for rural Minnesota, however, who benefits and how to ensure equity are central challenges that cannot be ignored. We must understand rural concerns, accept that each community’s issues may be different, and meet communities where they are. This approach is at the heart of Rural Climate Dialogue organizing, and essential to developing a renewable energy system that works for all. A framework for renewable energy development that has community buy in and equitable distribution of benefits would truly be a community innovation.

If you could do it all over again...

One piece of advice that would have served us well in the grant period is not to underestimate the staff time needed to carry out the work. Due to capacity limitations, as our original project lead went on fellowship, we chose to hire interns on the ground in both Morris and Winona. We realized that it would be instrumental to have people in the communities devoted to working with our partners on RCD outcomes. In Morris, our intern focused on building new relationships and connections across the community, including with the entire city council and county commission. She was instrumental in expanding conservative support for local energy projects. In Winona, our intern worked with schools throughout the community to engage students on energy issues. Among her efforts, she ran an energy-saving contest on the Winona State University campus, which raised awareness and reduced campus energy use. Identifying this need earlier in the process would have allowed us to operate more effectively from an earlier point, thus strengthening the outcomes in the communities.

One last thought

Here are some highlights of the grant period:
Stevens County:
-All city-owned lights changed to LEDs.
-Secured funding for a district heating consultant and conducted a feasibility study.
-3 electric vehicle chargers installed around town.
-Secured funding to subsidize the high school robotics team in building a solar array for public education.
Winona County Outcomes:
-Over 100 households in Winona County installed rain barrels.
-197 Winona County households received Low Income Home Energy Squad visits in 2017.
- The City of Winona created an Energy Plan, which includes the goal of 10% energy reduction by 2025, and the goal to go carbon neutral by 2050.
-The City of Winona, Winona County, and Winona Area Public Schools committed to purchasing 40%, 100%, and 100% of their annual energy use, respectively, from a community solar garden slated to be operational in 2018.
Itasca County:
- In Itasca County, we held a two-day Citizens Jury in May 2018. The Itasca County Energy Dialogue led to a community action plan that can be viewed in the final report (final reports from all our events available online).