University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Going Green

Even amidst a pandemic, climate change remains a looming threat. U of M researchers and alumni are hard at work creating a “greener Minnesota” for coming years.

Teddie Potter is a clinical nursing professor and director of planetary health at the U of M School of Nursing. She is also a founder of Nurses Drawdown, a multinational group that works to directly combat climate change.
Photo credit: Andrea Ellen Reed

Growing up in the Twin Cities during the 1960s and 1970s, Teddie Potter (M.S. ’99) and her family eagerly anticipated spotting the first robin every April.

“It meant that spring was on the way … that the patterns of nature were working,” says Potter, who is the director of planetary health and a clinical nursing professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing.

By the time she was a college student in 1975, Potter started noticing a change in Minnesota’s natural patterns. She discovered the robins weren’t disappearing in the winter months. What’s more, ice on the region’s lakes, which had usually been thick enough to skate on in November, no longer hardened at a predictable time.

These disruptions, she says, were the dawning of her awareness of climate change.

As a nurse, Potter is deeply invested in healing not just a patient’s particular illness but the larger systems that cause or exasperate health challenges. She sees how the health of the planet and people are interconnected, including why injuries from car accidents and falls have escalated in recent years due to icy streets that used to be covered in snow, or how spikes in allergy-induced asthma are caused by ragweed pollen seasons that now average 21 days longer than they did in Minnesota in the mid-’90s.

As a result, in 2020, Potter helped found a global nursing movement called Nurses Drawdown in an effort to decrease greenhouse gases and other causes of climate change. “According the Gallup Poll, nurses are the most trusted profession in the United States,” she says. “I wanted to use the trust people have in nurses to scale [science-based climate change solutions] and take our work to the level of a movement.” Today, Nurses Drawdown partners with 16 organizations worldwide and has 700 members. The group promotes a number of climate-related initiatives, including encouraging a move to more plant-based diets and advocating for a transition to renewable energy.

While the subject of climate change remains a flashpoint for some who dispute the fact that the earth is warming or that humans are precipitating it, reputable climate researchers, including those at the U of M, say we face a crisis in coming years.

In fact, 2020 has tied for the warmest year on record, matching a previous milestone temperature from 2016. Researchers say that climate change is exacerbated by the proliferation of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) characterizes as ones that trap heat in the atmosphere. These GHGs—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases—primarily enter the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels or as a byproduct of producing those fuels; through natural processes such as organic decay or farming or raising animals; and through industrial activity.

Although the factors driving climate change are highly complex, moving to renewable, more sustainable energy sources and lessening our dependence on fossil fuels is seen as key to slowing this progression.

This past December, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres gave a speech highlighting the fact that 70 percent of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries are also among the most politically and economically fragile. He also issued his strongest statement yet on climate change, urging all countries to declare “climate emergencies” before the relentless warming of the Earth tips us into a dangerous maelstrom we can no longer control.

With the Biden administration now prioritizing climate change, Minnesota Alumni looks at what a greener Minnesota—and country—could look like in coming years.

Combatting climate change has gained new urgency on a national level recently. The controversial Keystone XL pipeline permit, which would have allowed transport of so-called “dirtier” fossil fuel from the tar sands of Canada through the U.S., has been revoked (at least temporarily). The U.S. has also rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, the binding treaty on climate change that the Trump administration withdrew from in 2019. More than a hundred other climate-related rules and laws are also currently under review.

Ambitious future plans call for investing more heavily in “green technologies,” including solar, wind, and biofuels, and moving away from energy production that relies primarily on fossil fuels. (The Covid-19 stimulus bill that was passed in December includes a number of clean energy provisions, including a two-year extension on the solar investment tax credit and additional tax credits for new wind and offshore wind projects.)

What is “Cleaner Energy?”

Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydropower, and geothermal are usually considered “clean” energy because they do not rely on fossil fuels. Bio-based fuels like ethanol are also generally considered cleaner because they are made from renewable resources like corn. Some argue that nuclear power should also be considered cleaner energy but the problem of safely disposing of spent fuel rods that will remain radioactive for many, many generations complicates the matter.

The Biden administration has also proposed investing $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years to promote policies to ensure the U.S. achieves a 100-percent clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050. (Net-zero emissions refers to removing all manmade GHG emissions from the atmosphere through reduction measures or by not creating the emissions in the first place.)

To fund this ambitious plan, the current administration hopes to leverage an additional $5 trillion in investments from the private sector and state and local governments.

While all these efforts will almost certainly not bear fruit, this renewed emphasis on the climate means we will probably see changes in every aspect of our lives, from how and what we use as transportation to how we heat and illuminate our homes and offices.

“Today, ‘going green’ means [figuring out] how we maintain our fundamental connections to nature, which are necessary for life and can be sustained over the long term,” says Gabriel Chan, an assistant professor of Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) at the U of M’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “How do we create a more sustainable society that will allow for prosperity one generation from now, two generations from now, three generations from now, in perpetuity, [where] we don’t overconsume our precious natural resources? Part of that answer is to radically rethink how we produce and consume energy.”

Chan notes that we use energy to power two main systems: transportation, which still depends largely on gasoline or diesel fossil fuels, and electricity, which in Minnesota still means relying primarily on coal-fired power plants, although that’s changing. In 2019, 19 percent of Minnesota’s electricity came from wind power and 18 percent came from natural gas, with much smaller amounts generated by renewable options that include solar, biomass, and hydropower.

“In order to decarbonize our economy —to green our economy —we need to reduce carbon emissions in both of those systems,” explains Alexandra Klass, a professor at the U of M Law School, whose areas of expertise include energy law, environmental law, and natural resources law. Last September, Klass was appointed by Governor Tim Walz to serve on the Governor’s Advisory Council on Climate Change.

Today, roughly 28 percent of GHGs emitted in Minnesota and across the country come from transportation, according to the EPA. Vehicles powered by gasoline or diesel create those gases, whether from the car itself or through the process of producing that petroleum. (See "The Future of Four Wheels," below.)

In 2007, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty signed the Next Generation Energy Act. It requires the state to reduce GHGs by 80 percent between 2005 and 2050, and to support clean energy, energy efficiency, and other renewable energy standards. At the time, interim goals were also set: a 15 percent reduction by 2015, and a 30 percent reduction by 2025. However, in a report to the Legislature in January, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency noted Minnesota missed its goal in 2015, and is not on track to meet future goals. Since 2005, overall GHG emissions have declined just 8 percent.

To do better will require a shift in our collective mindset away from the idea that needed changes are too expensive, especially in an economy that has already been battered by a pandemic. “The status quo is not cost free,” Klass says. “The status quo is what is leading to floods, wildfires, and other significant impacts of climate change that are cost - ing Minnesota hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”

Klass was an early adopter of a technology that may soon become more prevalent in the greener economy-Minnesota of the future. “I have driven a[n electric] Nissan Leaf for the last six years,” she says, noting that she recently upgraded to a Tesla Model 3, which has a significantly longer driving range. “The reason I chose it was because there were very few electric models available here when I started wanting an electric car back in 2015. That’s not true in California, where there’s lots and lots of different models of electric cars, because there’s a mandate that they’re sold there. 

“All of the car companies know that electrification is going to be required in [coming years in] China, in Europe, in places like California,” she says. “And so even two years from now, you’re going to have a lot more models, and all of those models are going to have a much longer battery range.”

As for revising the other major system behind GHGs— energy—Minnesota is in a unique position when it comes to transitioning to greener production technologies simply because the state doesn’t have fossil fuels that can be harvested. While Minnesota workers will inevitably be impacted by a shift to more renewable energies, the state doesn’t have to wrestle with the challenges faced by states where fossil fuel industries drive politics and public policy.

“A net renewable energy is likely to grow a lot of jobs in Minnesota, without necessarily the same kinds of job losses,” says Chan. “Energy transition has such a big potential benefit for the whole state and for the whole country and the whole world, frankly, that we need to find ways to create that alignment—so that people see that benefit, feel that benefit [from] green energy.”

The Minnesota Energy Factsheet, produced by research firm BloombergNEF for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, outlines key trends impacting energy demand, supply, and investment in the state. It reports that Minnesota imports of energy fell to their lowest level in over two decades in 2020, thanks to increased investments in solar and wind. What’s more, it says clean energy and energy efficiency support over 61,000 jobs in the state, growing 4.7 percent in 2018 alone. In addition, in 2019 nearly half of Minnesota’s power came from carbon-neutral sources, according to the Factsheet. (Carbon neutral means that emissions that are being generated are being offset elsewhere.) Power sector carbon emissions also decreased 37 percent between 2005 to 2019 due to the clean energy transition.

Further improvements to Minnesota’s energy economy will require not only advocacy for new public policies but also innovative business initiatives.

That said, creating an infrastructure to support renewable energy in Minnesota comes with challenges.

“Anything you do is going to have side effects,” says Ned Mohan, a Regents Professor in the College of Science & Engineering who researches energy systems and power electronics. As a child growing up in India, Mohan traveled to rural communities with his civil engineer father. “These towns had no electricity and we had to use kerosene lamps,” he remembers. Those early experiences convinced Mohan that access to electricity is a basic human right.

“People may say that we should generate all our electricity through wind and solar. But wind doesn’t always blow and sunlight doesn’t always shine,” he says. Mohan believes that getting to electric energy that is 80 percent carbon free by 2030 is an achievable goal, but that it will take more innovative solutions—and perhaps a renewed comfort with nuclear power—to get to 100 percent carbon free by 2050. In addition, we need to consider how to sustainably dispose of solar arrays and wind turbines when they are past their shelf life.

Some experts believe this is a moment when more and more people will embrace bold initiatives. “Because of the intersection of this pandemic, Covid-19, the intersection of the world awakening around structural racism, [and] the climate change disasters that we’re seeing played out in front of our eyes, enough people are saying, ‘Oh my gosh, our current system doesn’t work. What do we do? How do we transform it?’” says Teddie Potter.

“It’s not about going back to normal, because the system hasn’t always worked for everyone,” Potter adds. “Clearly it doesn’t work for the planet. So, the new system we need to build is a system that has the potential to really be an equitable system, a system where everyone has an opportunity to rise to their full potential. I think it’s absolutely possible—I think it’s the most exciting time to live right now.”

Underground Warmth

Alumnus Jimmy Randolf at Pipefitters Steamfitters Local 455 in St. Paul, where Darcy Solutions installed its first commercial system. The well has 20 times the heat exchange capacity of a traditional geothermal borehole.

When it comes to sustainable energy, most people know about wind and solar power. But geothermal energy, which harnesses energy from the sun stored in shallow ground to heat and cool buildings, is also an emerging opportunity. The process relies on tapping into steady underground temperatures, which stay relatively constant at 50 to 60 degrees, and then circulating that heat or coolness via pipes throughout buildings. (Other countries in the world, including Iceland, already rely heavily on a different type of geothermal energy produced by underground volcanic activity.)

Jimmy Randolph (Ph.D. ’11) was doing graduate research at the U of M on a heat exchange technology when he cofounded a geothermal technology that he spun off into Darcy Solutions, a Twin Cities-based company for which he is the chief technical officer.

“Geothermal ground source is the most efficient way to provide building heating and cooling, short of opening a window, and it saves people money,” says Randolph. “It’s a great technology for socially and economically disadvantaged areas.”

One of Darcy Solutions next projects is in North Minneapolis at the Minnesota State Offices Workforce Center at 1200 Plymouth Avenue North. The Como Zoo in St. Paul is also exploring working with Darcy Solutions to provide its energy needs.

“It’s the optimal technology to reduce people’s costs of owning or renting a home,” Randolph says.

Capturing Sun at Red Lake

For Robert Blake, left, a graduate student at the Carlson School, the idea of a career in renewable energy came as an epiphany—in the form of an imaginary polar bear wearing sunglasses.

Blake conjured up the idea of his solar installation company, Solar Bear, in 2009, in the aftermath of the untimely death of his older brother, William Blake, a Minneapolis police officer. Robert was 35 years old, mourning the loss of his brother and best friend, and serving as a surrogate father figure for his brother’s children when he created his company. He believes the idea came to him in the form of a bear to serve as a guide to help him find a way forward and make the world a better place for his nieces and nephews.

Blake decided to explore business opportunities in solar energy. He founded Solar Bear in 2017. It’s the only American Indian-owned solar installation company of the 146 in Minnesota; Blake is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. In 2020, he started a second company called Native Sun Community Power Development, a nonprofit that promotes renewable energy and helps American Indians and others learn how to transition to clean energy. In 2018, Solar Bear installed solar panels on the Red Lake Nation Government Center, the start of a multistage process to make the Red Lake Band of Chippewa energy independent. Blake believes that relying solely on gaming for revenue is unwise for Red Lake. Providing jobs in renewable energy will, he hopes, point the tribe to a positive future of energy independence.

Native Sun also runs a program called Solar Cub, which teaches young tribal members about the interdependence of a healthy environment, clean energy, and American Indian culture. “We’ve got to quit being at war with this planet and start being at peace with it,” Blake says. “No one owns the sun. We have 180,000 terawatts that hit the world each day, and we’re only harnessing 17 of them.”

There is certainly potential for growth. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Minnesota ranks 14th in the nation for solar installations and has enough solar capability to power 3 percent of the state’s total electricity. The industry currently accounts for 4,335 jobs.

Catching the Wind

In the summer of 1988, Paul White (M.A. ’92), left, was a graduate student at the U of M, studying energy technology and environmental planning when scientist James Hansen from the Goddard Space Institute testified before Congress that the Earth was warming. Hearing Hansen’s warning was an epiphany for White. “I jumped in with both feet,” he says of his decision to pursue a career in wind energy.

White started out running the office of an industry policy association in California, and eventually worked on a proposal for California Governor Pete Wilson’s biennial energy report. That job required him to meet with the owners of every wind project in the state to research what it would look like to repower the state’s wind industry with larger turbines. That door-to-door approach would serve him well in 1997, when he founded PRC Wind, a Minnesota-based company that develops wind energy projects by prospecting across the region, including in areas that are retiring their coalfired plants. This creative problem-solving work includes anything from meeting with farmers and leasing land to working with state and local government to get permits, secure financing, conduct environmental studies, and hire companies that build the actual turbines.

Workers construct what will be the concrete foundation of a wind tower at Ridgewind, a project in Woodstock, Minnesota, developed, built, and operated by PRC Wind.

Today, PRC Wind has developed more than two gigawatts of wind-generating electricity capacity —the equivalent of two large coal plants. But there are challenges. “Our power grid is not built to support the growth of the windpower sector,” says White. “We need the grid to be designed in a fashion that will work for remote locations in North Dakota and Wyoming, and then be able to ship that power to markets in Chicago and Los Angeles.” It’s an effort he says is on the scale of what it took to build the interstate highway system or putting a man on the moon.

White’s commitment to decarbonization has also led him to contemplate starting a green airline, using agriculture-based bio-jet-fuel. “Nobody thinks about their flights to Europe or New York when you ask them about global warming,” he says. “The reality is that your portion of a single long-haul flight’s CO2 emits your lifetime quota of the amount we can all emit and keep global warming in check.”

White envisions leasing a Boeing 737-400 that would fly between the Twin Cities and San Diego once a week. He has applied for the lease for the jet, but progress stalled during the Covid-19 pandemic. He hopes to return to the project this year.

Advocate for the Earth

When Kerry Wang (Ph.D. ’19), left, was an undergraduate chemical engineering major at Rice University in Houston, he fulfilled one of his general education requirements with a course about environmental sociology. Wang was used to seeing climate change through the lens of science, but this course showed him the realworld implications.

“I started seeing environmental issues not just as technological challenges but as broader social issues,” he says. “Environmental problems are also social justice and civil rights problems.” He carried this new awareness with him when he arrived at the U of M in 2012 to pursue his doctorate in materials science and engineering.

In 2015, Wang founded the UMN Energy Club, an interdisciplinary student organization that promotes a multipronged approach—from engineering to law to design—to advocating for sustainability and energy. “I want curious people to meet each other and learn from each other and teach what they know, and do this intellectual crosspollination so we can get a real understanding of what it means to be sustainable, what it means to address climate change in a serious way,” he says.

Today, Wang is the lead renewable energy instructor at MIGIZI, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that provides career counseling and media and leadership training for American Indian youth. He develops the curriculum and teaches courses that prepare students for careers in renewable energy and energy efficiency. “I think there’s a lot that we can learn from our Indigenous relatives and community on how we relate to each other and the natural world,” Wang says. “I think there are ways that we can promote, we can be a positive influence for each other and for all life on Earth.”

Wang believes this framework will also foster other positive changes.

“We find that the best ways to be kinder to the environment are often linked with how to be kinder to each other,” he says. “If you manage to dramatically reduce some environmental impact, and then you get shot by the police for doing an everyday activity that humans do, that’s not winning, right? That’s not being sustainable.”

The Future of Four Wheels

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), transportation remains the largest producer of GHG emissions in Minnesota, even though the Minnesota Department of Agriculture notes the state is also a national leader in ethanol policy and was the first to mandate using the cleanerburning fuel in vehicles.

Still, in 2020, Governor Tim Walz announced plans to adopt California’s Clean Car Standard, which will require manufacturers to make cars that pollute less, with a particular emphasis on bringing more electric cars to market and building charging stations throughout the state. Electrifying school buses, city buses, and delivery trucks could also decrease GHGs, as will urban planning that prioritizes biking and walkable communities.

MnDOT developed a report called Pathways to Decarbonizing Transmissions in 2020. The report found that light-duty vehicles—cars, vans, pickup trucks—are the largest segment of GHG emitters, according to Siri Simons (B.A. ’12, M.A. ’20), left, a sustainability coordinator at MnDOT.

In addition to developing incentives for users to switch to electric vehicles and reduce miles traveled, the report recommends Minnesota consider expanding the use of biofuels produced with organic materials, including plants and animal waste, to power vehicles. This would include heavy-duty vehicles that can’t shift entirely to electric power right now, such as snowplows, which are however able to run on a biofuel-blend during the warmer months of October and November.

Future U of M research, including from the new Bioindustrial Manufacturing And Design Ecosystem or BioMADE Center at the U of M's St. Paul campus, also intends to focus on expanding the state's biofuel possibilities, among many other innovations.

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the senior editor of Minnesota Alumni.

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