University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Leading By Example

At the U of M, combatting climate change is serious business and a top priority.

One of the multiple solar panel installations at the U of M-Twin Cities campus.

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 ( 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 (, 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 (, 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 University of Minnesota's first concerted push toward sustainability as a core principle began in 2004, when the Board of Regents adopted the idea.

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.

The retrofitted U of M energy plant operates at 83 percent efficiency, better than twice that of a typical power plant. It also saves $2 million in energy costs a year.

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 ( 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 Mississippi River.

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.

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