Back to the Future

Residents of an Iowa town are turning to an old form of energy sharing to generate new interest and efficiency

The Fayette County Courthouse in West Union, Iowa, sits atop a gentle hill in the center of town, as all courthouses should. The courthouse lawn affords a view of much of the business district, which would be familiar to almost anyone who grew up in a small or midsized American town. Mostly brick, two-story buildings from the turn of the last century fill an area of about six square blocks, and though the downtown has seen more prosperous days, there are nevertheless three cafés, a pharmacy, a pizza parlor, a jewelry store, two banks, a Ford dealership, a clothing store, two real estate offices, and more. Indeed, despite the recession and a declining population, West Union's business district remains open for business.

Local leaders have not, however, grown complacent. In recent years, with the aim of luring more visitors downtown, they have embarked on an ambitious improvement project that incorporates green technology and design. The centerpiece of this effort is both age-old and cutting-edge: a "district energy" plan that will provide many residents and property owners with access to cheap and renewable geothermal power. If successful, West Union, a rural town of 2,600, could serve as a model for small communities across the country, demonstrating that environmental and economic sustainability, considered together, can keep America's main streets vital and thriving.

District energy is one of those ideas whose time has come and gone—and come again, as the nation rediscovers the concept's inherent virtues. At the start of the 20th century, the notion that multiple buildings could share a heating system, usually boiler-and-steam based, was popular; examples survive at college and hospital campuses around the country. But district energy fell out of favor in the 1950s, as suburban development began in earnest, and planners became less interested in main street infrastructure.

West Union's district energy plan involves creating a neighborhood-sized public utility that will draw energy directly from the ground. Coursing through pipes in wells 200 feet deep, a mixture of water and alcohol will take on the temperature of the surrounding earth, then pass through more pipes beneath the downtown district, where businesses will have the option of hooking up to the system.

The earth's constant temperature will enable district energy participants to cool and heat their buildings at reduced cost with ultra-efficient heat pumps. Currently, most downtown buildings are heated by gas or oil, and cooling is often provided by power-sucking window air conditioners. A study of the West Union project undertaken by the National Trust's Preservation Green Lab estimated that replacing those sources with clean thermal energy via a district energy system could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in West Union by 31 percent while stabilizing and significantly lowering heating and cooling bills. Most of the construction should be complete by next year. "We saw an opportunity to take advantage of green energy, protect the environment, and promote economic development," says Tobin Britt, who works for the First National Bank of West Union, which is signing up for district energy. "When you get a chance to do these things together, you've got to go for it."

Given the revived interest in efficiency and renewable sources of power, district energy is sparking debate all over the country. "You're seeing recognition that if you're going to invest in green energy, it's much easier to do it on this scale than it is for a single building or on the larger scale of the power grid," says Tom Osdoba, director of the Center for Sustainable Business Practices at the University of Oregon, who co-authored the Preservation Green Lab's study.

Several cities, including Portland, Ore., and Denver, are considering district energy for downtown neighborhoods. St. Paul and Seattle already have systems in place. And Montpelier, Vt., is expanding its district heating system from the state capitol complex to downtown.

West Union's effort stands out for at least three reasons:
It is significantly greener than most of the existing systems because of its total reliance on geothermal power; it is farther along than most of the proposed district plans; and it is being implemented in a small community. But the changes didn't come about easily. Local leaders began discussing how to revitalize downtown as far back as 2005. Not until 2008, however, when the Iowa Department of Economic Development selected West Union as a pilot project under a new sustainability initiative, did civic leaders begin seriously considering how to create a greener downtown—and ultimately a more prosperous one.

This is about the time when passionate debate erupted. "It's been a bumpy road, to be honest," says Robin Bostrom, executive director of West Union's Main Street Program. "We're a conservative community. People were worried about the cost." Their concerns were only compounded when the town's largest employer, Atwood Mobile Products, closed its doors in April 2009. "That was a huge blow to the community," says Bostrom. "In the course of six months, we lost 160 jobs, just as we were asking people to support the additional cost of this project."

A wealth of grants suddenly available for green energy development eased many residents' concerns. The economic stimulus package that became law in 2009 included a big boost in federal aid for renewable energy, and many state and private sources stepped up their support. West Union received about $8 million in grants for the proposed project, significantly reducing the burden on local taxpayers and businesses. The city's share of the cost ended up being about $2.6 million. Osdoba says the grants clearly "made a big difference. You see a ton of communities interested in this, but they're just so paralyzed by the fiscal situation."

Can other communities justify the cost of a district energy system without receiving significant financial assistance? Yes, Osdoba believes, given higher energy costs and a stronger emphasis on reducing the carbon footprint of existing buildings. "You're seeing a greater ability to make a strong economic case for smaller-scale development like this," he says. "Increasingly, not just through grants, but through investment capital, there's going to be money available for these sorts of projects when a good business case is presented."

Of course, the costs involved in converting a building so that it can use district energy are potentially significant, depending on the structure's existing heating and cooling system. In West Union, cost has been the biggest hindrance to participation. In addition, civic leaders have had to stress that hooking up is voluntary—an essential point in allaying concerns about government intrusion into private business decisions. So far, Bostrom says, 18 of 60 downtown businesses are planning to hook up when district energy comes online.

Woodard Insurance and Real Estate is one of those businesses committed to the project. Dick Woodard co-runs the company, which has been in his family for four generations. (He is also president of West Union's Main Street Program.) He estimates that the payback period for the upgrades he is making to his building, constructed in 1885 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is 12 years. "Each business is different," he says. "The restaurants have considerably shorter payback times because of the way they use energy. I think you'll see more people signing up once they can see the savings."

West Union is also using a portion of a grant from the Department of Energy to set up a $50,000 revolving loan fund, which will help merchants to upgrade their buildings.

Consolidating community support has been a lengthy process. "We've hosted 100 to 150 meetings open to the public," Bostrom says. "We've made presentations to the Rotary, the Lions Club, church groups, you name it."

Osdoba believes that one secret to West Union's success was integrating district energy into the larger plan for improving downtown, thereby cutting relative costs and presenting a unified vision to the public. "The reason why West Union was able to make it work," he says, "is because people were looking at the entire street and the entire street infrastructure."

Indeed, it's the larger vision of an attractive and sustainable downtown—a multifaceted plan giving residents a variety of amenities—that seems to have inspired the most passionate support in West Union.

Outside town, trout streams meander through a quiet and verdant landscape of limestone bluffs, wooded hills, and rolling cornfields. Those streams, a source of local pride, are vulnerable to runoff, as residents know all too well. While residents were working on the downtown plan, Iowa suffered one of the worst floods in its history. Because the town lies in the heart of a watershed, water management quickly became a central element of any redesign. As a result, West Union's streets are now being resurfaced with a porous paving system of bricks set in gravel, which allows water to soak into the ground, and the streetscape is being redesigned to channel further runoff into small green areas that will serve as "rain gardens."

The project also includes wider sidewalks and accessible entrances, intended to improve the welcoming feel and attractiveness of West Union's business core and encourage shoppers to spend more time there. Bostrom seems particularly enthusiastic about the plans for a new plaza on one corner of the courthouse square. "It's going to be a place for live music and other events, to encourage people to come downtown," she says.

As part of its green effort, the town plans to install new LED streetlamps and even charging stations for electric cars, making West Union an attractive day trip for the environmentally minded. "Eventually, it'll be a kind of an oasis," predicts Jason Cooper, a landscape architect working on the project. "We hope it will attract people from all over who are drawn to what we've done."

The lessons learned here, of course, could be applied almost anywhere. After all, one of the reasons West Union attracted the attention of Iowa's Department of Economic Development in the first place was its similarity to other small towns in the state. And if rethinking this town's energy infrastructure really does result in a brighter economic future, then towns all over the country will most certainly take notice.    

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