Leading By Example
At the U of M, combatting climate change is serious business and a top priority.
Contractors finished installing solar panels on a steel canopy above a dull
parking lot next to the University of Minnesota’s Law School in 2019. They
covered an empty green space next to the parking lot and Mondale Hall’s
rooftop with panels, making the multisite solar installation the largest on
campus. It's the most visual manifestation of the University’s longstanding
commitment to clean energy and sustainability.
Over the past decade, the U of M has made its support of renewable
energy plain by investing in solar through utility-operated clean energy
programs and on-campus solar installations. And by improving building
efficiency and generating energy through a relatively new combined heat
and power plant—less noticeable but still important developments—the
University has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 39 percent
over the past 11 years.
Beyond targeting the campus’s energy consumption, the University relies
on research by scientists, architects, and policy experts to develop pathways
to green the state and country’s power infrastructure.
As part of President Joan Gabel’s MPact Systemwide Strategic Plan, which
the Board of Regents approved in June 2020, the U of M is implementing a
next-generation Climate Action Plan for 2030, including proposing a plan
for each of its five campuses.
The ultimate goal is both simple and mind-numbingly complex: Reduce
greenhouse gases and waste while improving water stewardship. By 2050 the University wants to be carbon neutral, offsetting any
remaining emissions with clean energy.
The University’s sustainability website (italladdsup.umn.edu) offers a “walking tour” that highlights 34
such efforts, from green roofs on several buildings to
highly energy-efficient buildings and sophisticated
stormwater reclamation systems to environmental
education-related programs and composting. And
the University boasts well regarded climate-oriented
research organizations such as the Institute on the
Environment (environment.umn.edu), which studies and
funds research on clean energy, sustainable agriculture,
land use, and water conservation.
Another example of a U of M research effort, The Chan
Lab (chan-lab.umn.edu), examines energy and climate
policy at a local, regional, and national level.
Higher education’s leadership role in both studying
and working to slow climate change is growing. Julian
Dautremont, programs director at the Association for
the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education,
notes colleges have become leaders in the field. “There is
a national commitment that many institutions have signed that commits them to reach carbon neutrality that doesn’t
exist to the same degree in other sectors,” he says.
On the other hand, structural changes at universities
often take a great deal of time, a drawback in a global climate crisis. Though unwieldy, large universities do, however,
have built-in advantages in combatting climate change that
include sustainability staff, market purchasing power, and
budgets allowing for more significant
investments, Dautremont says.
The U of M made sustainability a
priority long ago. The University’s
first real push began in 2004, when
the Board of Regents first adopted
a policy around energy and sustainability, according to
Shane Stennes, director of the Office of Sustainability.
“That was really the first big push for the introduction of
sustainability as an organizing principle at the University,”
he says. Sustainability is a concept that includes combatting
climate change by working to preserve scarce resources,
including reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
A few years later, then-University President Robert
Bruininks and Vice President Kathleen O‘Brien created and
hired a sustainability staff dedicated to encouraging the
U of M’s efforts in this area. The University even achieved
national recognition during this time when TCF Bank
Stadium became the first collegiate or professional field
in the country to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green
Building Council for excellence in sustainable design.
Now dozens of stadiums carry LEED certification, among
them Target Field, U.S. Bank Stadium, and Allianz Field.
And the former president’s namesake, Bruininks Hall, is
also LEED certified.
President Eric Kaler reaffirmed the U of M's commitment
by signing the White House Act on Climate Agreement in
2015. Today, sustainability is one of the top five systemwide
priorities for the U of M. Such leadership matches the
size of the challenge, says Stennes. “Our scientists at
the University and across the globe are sending really
clear messages and signals to all of us to say this track that we’re on, where we are highly dependent on fossil
fuels, [is that] fossil fuels cause climate change,” he
says. “It’s time for us to change course and [reduce that
dependence] really fast.”
Still, it will take decades to eliminate carbon from the
University’s operations. Within the next year, carbon
production from energy used by the U of M will decrease
more, to around 50 percent (from a 2008 baseline). “That’s
really significant,” Stennes said. “That would be putting us
on a leading pace compared to our peers in the Big Ten
and compared to other universities across the country.”
Those aspirations would be far easier in a warmer state
where electric heating—produced through non-fossil fuel
means—could adequately warm buildings. That becomes a
tall order in a cold weather state where gas heating remains
popular, inexpensive, and reliable on subzero winter days.
The ever-present cost equation gives a yin-yang quality to
investments that help decarbonize the campus, yet may
prove a barrier to reaching a net-zero finish line.
Consider the East Bank’s retrofitted Old Main Energy
Plant overlooking the Mississippi River. Opened in 2017,
the combined heat and natural gas plant operates at 83
percent efficiency, better than twice that of a typical power
plant. Heat created when the turbine generates power
gets turned into steam to heat the University’s hospital,
sports arenas, and classrooms.
The plant also saves $2 million in energy costs annually
and allows the University to maintain electricity to the
hospital and other important buildings should the grid fail. Emissions dropped an additional 10 percent to 13 percent
when the plant came online. Yet the facility will someday
become an obstacle to a cleaner campus because it relies
on natural gas, a greenhouse pollutant.
“The primary clean energy challenge for the University
is that we still use a fair amount of fossil fuel to keep campus
buildings heated in the winter and to provide hot water
and steam for University processes and research labs,”
Stennes says. “Finding a workable substitute for that is
going to be a challenge and it’s going to take a lot of effort.”
Clean Energy Investments
Another tack for pushing emissions down at the U of M
has been adding clean energy and improving efficiency
through retrofitting buildings, or by designing new ones
that perform well using less electricity and natural gas. (The
University’s other significant carbon sources, commuting
and air travel, would require behavioral change and a
transition to electric vehicles by staff and students.)
Solar energy and efficiency investments, in contrast, pay
for themselves quickly. The University has installed two
megawatts of solar panels on both Twin Cities campuses
at nine locations. The clean energy company Ameresco
built the solar projects before assigning the contract to a
private company called Encap MN Solar LLC that the
University pays for the electricity the panels produce through
a power purchase agreement.
On an urban campus without much land available on
which to build solar or wind generators, the University has
instead taken advantage of two other options: Community
solar gardens and Xcel Energy’s Renewable*Connect
program. Both allow customers to subscribe to long-term
contracts with outside clean energy generators that
potentially pay off in savings on electricity and, more
importantly, help reduce overall carbon emissions. In 2013
Minnesota legislators created one of the nation’s first
and now biggest community solar programs. Campus
solar installations and subscriptions to community solar
gardens and the Renewable*Connect program offset 27
percent of the campus’s purchased electricity and saved
millions of dollars—a good start, but just a beginning salvo.
Another target for decreasing carbon emissions is
improving building efficiency, the so called low-hanging
fruit of sustainability. By merely building and renovating
buildings better, the campus saves money on energy
consumption while increasing indoor air quality.
The University ensures efficiency of new and existing structures by following a set of standards known as B3,
overseen by the University’s Center for Sustainable
Building Research (csbr.umn.edu). B3 offers guidance on
developing sustainability goals for energy, water, waste, and
indoor environments. Buildings over a certain size using
state money are also required to abide by B3 guidelines.
A recent example: the $104 million renovation of Pioneer
Hall. The dormitory has occupancy sensors in common
areas, programmable thermostats in rooms, LED lighting,
specialized windows, Energy Star-rated appliances, and a
heat recovery system that captures stale air to warm fresh
air. The dormitory also shares a 5-million-gallon rainwater
capture system with the new health sciences building that
first cleanses runoff before eventually returning it to the
Richard Graves, director of the Center for Sustainable
Building Research and an associate professor in the
College of Design, said that by rigorously following the
B3 guidelines, the University’s new properties consume
20 to 30 percent less energy than required by building
codes. Graves says the University has done an excellent
job of working with Stennes and his team on campus-wide
solutions that focus less on one structure and more on
how an entire campus area might benefit from district
energy or solar serving several buildings.
The University’s focus on renovating existing structures
serves as a good approach to greening the campus
because it uses less energy than constructing new buildings. “It’s really the way to go,” Graves says. “It’s been great
that that’s been the University’s strategy.”
All these initiatives are laudable but sometimes remain
hidden from the public, perhaps by Midwestern modesty. Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute on the
Environment, believes the University should speak more
to its ambitious goals and achievements to allow “other
people to come along on this journey, which is part of
the University’s job,” Hellmann says. “We’re not just here
to educate students who are enrolled, but to serve as a
learning community for the entire state.”
A Call for Change
Across the U of M, a number of sustainability initiatives
have come from departments, faculty, and students.
Representatives from the Medical School came to Stennes
and his staff with an initiative to increase the recycling of
waste products from laboratories. Sustainability coordinator Carley Rice says the school introduced compostable wipes and paper towels to improve recycling and now
wants to study how its freezers might operate more
efficiently. (Students also want to reduce the problem of
birds hitting campus building windows, an issue currently
being researched by a graduate student, Rice says.)
Many students have similarly ambitious goals. Madeline
Miller, a sophomore, serves as Environmental Accountability Committee director for the Minnesota Student
Association. The group wants the University to divest
from fossil fuel investments in its portfolio, get rid of
Styrofoam food containers, switch the campus food
provider to local companies, and continue moving to
more clean energy sources.
“We know that the choices that we make now and the
things that we’re working towards will benefit not just our
generation, but generations after us,” she says. “So little has
been done for so long that now we need to see change.”
Outside the campus, the University participates in the
Sustainable Growth Coalition, an organization focused on
developing a collective “circular economy” based on clean
energy, renewable materials, and water-saving approaches.
Composed mainly of corporations and nonprofits, Stennes
sees the University as perfectly suited to play a role in this
because of its expertise in sustainability and its built-in
slate of experts.
“To the extent we can reduce pollution, we reduce those
costs to society—which might include farmers in western
Minnesota who lose money if their crops fail because the
frost comes in too early or their fields are flooded in the
spring, and they can’t get out to plant a crop,” Stennes
said. “There are benefits in an extended way and they are
a little bit harder to quantify, but they are meaningful.”
Frank Jossi covers Minnesota for Midwest Energy News, part of the Energy News Network. He also writes the monthly "Sustainable" column for Finance & Commerce.