What he did
Driven by concern over global warming and a good nose for business opportunities, Larry Grimstad was an early pioneer in the use of solar and wind energy in rural Winneshiek County. Through personal projects and his business, Grimstad invested in these alternatives as the smart business choice for building a more stable future for his community.
According to Larry Grimstad, “economic growth is going to come from environmental change. They go together.”
For Grimstad, a bank owner and community leader, addressing climate change never was just about fulfilling a moral obligation. It was good business.
Over the last 25 years, Grimstad has implemented a number of sustainable practices and technologies in his business and community. He is unequivocal in his rejection of the argument that environmental and economic successes are at odds with one another.
“I’ve always been interested in what the future is bringing from the standpoint of the business I was in. Whatever’s coming down the road … I’d like to know about it so I can make adjustments and get ready. Global warming was one of the issues.”
Winneshiek County, where Grimstad lives, in rural northeastern Iowa, has one of the highest concentrations of individually-owned solar arrays in the state. Most of the county’s solar capacity is concentrated in Decorah, the county’s largest town with a population of around 8,000. Many of Decorah’s businesses, from the food co-op to the sports bar and the eye clinic, have implemented solar power on their premises and Grimstad, the former president of Decorah Bank & Trust Company (a local community bank), has played an important role in the town’s transition to renewables.
Grimstad’s interest in finding and implementing solutions to climate change began in the mid 1990s — years before renewable energy entered mainstream conversations. His initial efforts were driven by curiosity, determination, and a willingness to experiment on his own home. In those days, information about making sustainability-minded improvements on a household scale was difficult to find.
“You really had to do some research to find people who knew anything about this,” Grimstad said. “[Vendors would say] ‘So you want to do solar? There’s no solar around here’ … We managed to get the job done but we had to find the people to do it.”
Through his leadership at the bank, Grimstad’s commitment soon spread into the larger community. After learning from Luther College, the local liberal arts college, how to calculate a carbon footprint, he did so for the bank. In 2002, the Grimstad family prioritized sustainability in the design and construction processes of a new bank building, implementing solar on the roof and installing other environmentally-friendly features throughout the building.
“We told … the people who were helping us that [sustainability] was a key for us,” Grimstad said. “When we went to buy [furniture] … we said to [the manufacturers], ‘Okay we’re interested in buying wood furniture and we want it to come from woods that can be replaced relatively quickly’. And they looked at us like ‘Why …’. They learned a lesson from us: we’re interested in environmental issues so if you want to do business with us, that’s the way it’s going to be.”
As of 2019, Decorah Bank & Trust has provided over $4.7 million in solar project financing to customers and, over the last 15 years, has repeatedly added solar capacity to both of its locations. The bank is proud of the organization’s many sustainability investments, and produced this video about its commitment:
Grimstad has also taken on many projects outside of his role at the bank:
- 2002: Installed 1.8 kilowatt-hours of solar and 10 kW of wind power on his property.
- 2008: Along with engineer Paul Roder, constructed a 900 kW wind turbine in St. Ansgar, Iowa.
- 2012: Purchased a $1.2 million 280 kW solar array that, through his company Decorah Solar Field, was leased to Luther College for seven years. When it was installed, it was the largest solar electricity production facility in the state of Iowa.
- 2015: Purchased a $1.6 million 821.76 kW solar array through his company Oneota Solar, LLC, and leased it to Luther through a power purchase agreement.
The solar array purchased in 2012 culminated a project that Grimstad initiated four years earlier. In 2008, Grimstad began researching the potential for a local community solar field. In order to bring the solar field online, he required the approval of the rural electric utility, Dairyland Power. Despite producing the needed feasibility study and technical report, Dairyland denied his proposal. A large solar project in Decorah seemed unlikely until Grimstad was approached by a Luther professor who suggested they construct the solar array with the college. They applied for and received grant money for the project through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (an Obama-era policy aimed at economic recovery in the wake of the Great Recession), and successfully completed the installation. While it was not in the form Grimstad had originally imagined, the solar field, along with the second installation in 2015, now fulfill 7 percent of Luther’s electricity needs.
Although Grimstad has since retired, he continues to support environmental action through his guidance and leadership. He sits on the board of the Winneshiek Energy District, a non-profit focused on local renewable energy and also serves on environmental committees for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Luther College, and the Farm Bureau. Grimstad is also helping his son, now the president of the bank, implement another project with Luther.
Additionally, Grimstad is the president of Decorah Power, a citizens group which led a 2018 campaign to establish a municipal electric utility (MEU). With an MEU rather than Alliant Energy, an investor owned electric utility, Grimstad believes Decorah would enjoy more freedom for renewable energy projects and other benefits.
While the campaign for an MEU lost a referendum by three votes last May, Grimstad believes that with Alliant continuing to raise rates the issue will likely come up again. He remains optimistic about a future referendum.
“It’ll be different next time around,” Grimstad said.
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Larry Grimstad, interview with Forrest Stewart, May 2, 2019 plus follow-up exchanges
Center for Sustainable Communities. (2018). Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Systems | Center for Sustainable Communities. Retrieved from https://www.luther.edu/sustainability/energy-climate/renewable/solar-pv-systems/
Decorah Bank & Trust. (2019). Our Story. Retrieved from https://www.decorahbank.com/about-us/
Decorah Bank & Trust. (2019). Sustainability Commitment. Retrieved from https://www.decorahbank.com/sustainability-commitment/
Decorah Power. (2018). About. Retrieved from https://decorahpower.org/about/
Small Business Database, Decorah Solar Field LLC, http://www.smallbusinessdb.com/decorah-solar-field-llc-decorah-ia-52101.htm, accessed Oct 9, 2019
Blog post, “Luther College leads the way on solar energy”, Bleeding Heartland, Aug 27, 2012, https://www.bleedingheartland.com/2012/08/27/luther-college-leads-the-way-on-solar-energy/, accessed Oct 7, 2019
Luther College Headlines. (2012, July 3). Luther College $1.2 million Solar Energy Field Nears Completion. Retrieved from https://www.luther.edu/headlines/?story_id=399675
Namanny, D., & Globe Gazette. (2008, February 03). Wind turbine goes up north of Mitchell. Retrieved from https://globegazette.com/news/local/wind-turbine-goes-up-north-of-mitchell/article_fe170549-002d-5e54-88b4-604e74ce7896.html
Winneshiek Energy District. (2019). Winneshiek Renewable Energy Map. Retrieved from http://tools.energydistrict.org/rmap/#
Winneshiek Energy District. (2019). About. Retrieved from https://energydistrict.org/about/