RAGRAI 2022: West Union Goes Green – Part 1

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One of the overnight towns along the RAGBRAI route was West Union, in Fayette County, Iowa. Thousands of riders, and their support crews, rode into town during the event. They strolled along the downtown streets and enjoyed the festivities of this quaint little town. But what they didn’t know was that West Union is quite possibly the greenest community in the state of Iowa.

Just How Green?

Lined with buildings from the late 1800s to 1910, Downtown West Union is on the National Register of Historic Places for good reason. Although, in general, the buildings have been kept in good repair, the underground infrastructure was in tough shape. The same could be said for the sidewalks and the roads throughout downtown. Major repairs were needed, but the City recognized an opportunity to not just repair but improve the downtown infrastructure for decades to come.

In 2007, West Union embarked on a complete transformation of the community that would make it a model town for sustainability and resilience. Not just a model town for other communities in Iowa, but small communities throughout the Midwest. Since the start of their journey to get greener, the community has completed the following projects:

  • Energy audits conducted for downtown buildings
  • District ground source distributed loop heating and cooling (geothermal) system
  • Installation of LED streetlights
  • Construction of an electric vehicle charging station
  • Installation of 6 blocks of porous paver streets and sidewalks as part of streetscape improvements
  • Construction and planting of 36,000 square feet of rain gardens
  • Construction of a solar farm

The City’s engineering consultant, Fehr Graham, calculated that 4.4 acres of permeable pavers were laid, which included improvements to 3,000 linear feet of streets and 6,000 linear feet of sidewalks. Considering that West Union is a town of only 2,486 people, this is quite an impressive accomplishment.

How it Started

West Union Water TowerIn 2007 West Union started the initial conceptual design for streetscape improvements in their downtown area. That’s when Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) caught wind of West Union’s intentions. They were in the search of a pilot community for a new initiative they were working on. IDEA was looking for ways to integrate green, sustainable practices into the programs and services it offered.

IDEA was also looking for projects that could leverage funds from multiple sources in order to make a sizeable change to a community. This was especially important with the project that West Union was proposing. Going green is not cheap, especially in such a grand way. Although grant funds only covered part of the cost, they were a welcome addition to help pare down the impact.

With IDEA’s support and effective grant-writing efforts, the project was able to land a total of 17 grants, totaling $10.3M in funding to help cover the costs. It was truly a team effort as the City of West Union, Fayette County, West Union Chamber of Commerce, Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, and project champions all had a part in acquiring the funds.

A District-Wide Geothermal System

One unique aspect of the project was the concept of installing a district-based geothermal heating and cooling loop in downtown. This loop would be stubbed out to 60 buildings in the downtown areas with 132 vertical wells in courthouse square and additional wells in Lions Park for future expansion. To utilize the system, building owners would have to install a heat pump in their building and connect it to the system.

A district-based geothermal system for a community’s downtown isn’t new, but it is still very rare to see. Especially in a town of under 3,000. Proponents of geothermal energy boast that it is 400% more efficient than conventional HVAC systems. Detractors point to the sizeable startup cost and the amount of space needed for the wells. However, a district-based setup helps minimize the impact of those issues.

Making the Connection

Through a grant provided by USDA, businesses were offered the ability to obtain a cost-benefit analysis to help make an informed financial decision as to whether to connect to the system. Through the USDA REDA grant, the mechanical and electrical engineering firm KCL Engineering’s analysis would include:

  • Energy load analysis
  • Sizing and location of heat pumps
  • Opinion of probable cost
  • Life cycle cost analysis comparing district system use versus an alternative gas heating and DX cooling system
  • Estimate of potential rebates and other available incentives

With the results of the studies, 11 businesses made the jump and connected to the system. Three more businesses are taking serious looks into connecting too. One of the banks invested in both geothermal and solar improvements for their facility.

But the initial costs of connecting to the geothermal system are pretty sizeable. “We’re looking at a revolving loan fund and other options,” states Dick Woodard.

West Union District Energy LLC is also looking for ways to connect other businesses outside of the downtown area.

Adding the Option of Solar

West Union wasn’t done once the downtown improvements were complete. Their mission to go green has expanded into adding solar as another sustainable energy source.

However, West Union’s commitment to solar energy wasn’t just through a single solar farm in one location. They’ve added solar arrays in 12 different locations. North Fayette Valley Schools has added arrays of its own.

Next Week

Next week we’ll take a look at the final product. We’ll see the end result of all the work that this small town in Iowa put into a green future for its residents.