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Opponents of a municipal utility campaign in Decorah, Iowa, held a four-vote lead late Tuesday with at least 15 ballots uncounted. Official results were not expected until Monday.

Correction: Luther College decided not to pursue some clean-energy projects because the economics didn’t work, in large part due to Alliant tariffs. An earlier version of the story mischaracterized the situation.

A northeast Iowa community is split on whether to proceed with plans to create a municipal electric utility.

The results of a non-binding, city election in Decorah, Iowa, were a toss up late Tuesday, with 1,384 votes against and 1,380 votes in favor.

There were 15 ballots outstanding, and officials said they would not have an official tally until Monday, the last day absentee ballots can be counted.

“We’re not taking it as a loss, and we’re not taking it as a win. We’re just taking it one day at a time,” said Emily Anne Neal, spokeswoman for the community municipalization campaign, Decorah Power. “There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of counting votes and making sure everything lines up.”

The stakes are a bit higher for municipalization advocates. While a “yes” vote would not commit the city to creating its own utility, a “no” vote would prevent another election on the matter for four years. A favorable vote is a prerequisite to the city moving forward.

A spokesman for the investor-owned utility that currently serves the city thanked customers who voted to stick with the company Tuesday.

“We want to thank our customers for their ongoing support and the entire community for the healthy debate that accompanied this process,” Interstate Power & Light spokesman Mike Wagner said in an email. “We look forward to the final results.”

The non-binding vote was called for by the Decorah City Council, the entity that would create a municipal utility should it decide to pursue the matter. The Iowa Utilities Board ultimately would rule on any application to create a municipal utility.

The conversation about possibly creating a municipal utility began a couple of years ago, as frustration boiled over in response to Interstate Power & Light’s persistent refusal to support efforts to develop renewable generation in town.

Luther College, the largest electricity customer in Decorah, has investigated CHP and additional solar arrays, but has not been able to make the economics work, in large part due to Alliant’s tariffs.

Also, the company opposed a shared solar project proposed by the city, county, hospital, Luther College and Northeast Iowa Community College.

Clean-energy proponents envisioned a city-run utility as an avenue toward more renewables. Since 2000, about 20 municipal utilities have been created nationwide, according to Tobias Sellier of the American Public Power Association. The largest was in Jefferson County, Washington, with 18,000 customers. In 2013, it took over the system from Puget Sound Energy.

“The road is long and hard,” Sellier cautioned.

Decorah’s advocates have also considered using the city’s franchise agreement with Interstate to press for more renewables. The agreement expires at the end of this month. With municipalization in the air, the city postponed renewing it a year ago. Clean-energy proponents have suggested that with enough voters in favor of creating a city utility, the city might have some bargaining leverage with Interstate.

Even if the initiative fails, Neale sees good that could result.

“I hope this leaves an impression on citizens that there are options, and that sometimes it’s important to examine the status quo. I hope people realize that votes matter, that every vote matters.”

Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

One reply on “Iowa town split on municipal utility vote; too close to call late Tuesday”

  1. Thanks for the coverage. We should add that the pursuit of a municipal option was not based strictly on the desire for more renewable energy. It was also in very large part about keeping energy dollars local, and reversing the giant sucking sound of millions in energy costs flowing out of our community year after year after year. The 21st century energy world has opened tremendous opportunities in technology and economics that support decentralized, distributed models of energy generation and ownership. The holy grail for communities is here and now in the form of “green meets green”: the green of keeping dollars local can be achieved at the same time as going clean with renewables and efficiency. Of course, these tremendous opportunities for communities and customers are also very real threats to corporate profits. Any community considering the muni option should be aware it will be a David v Goliath fight when it comes to campaign funding, fear promotion, and false narratives. Community advocates in Decorah, for example, were outspent somewhere between five and ten to one.

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