Larry Herke’s budget never quite covered the electric bill for Minnesota’s state-operated military facilities — until he discovered energy conservation.

It took five years and a transformation in the military’s “use-it-and-dispose-of-it culture,” but he succeeded in eliminating a $1 million annual shortfall in energy funds.

“It was a way of survival,” said Herke, who was a facilities manager for the state Department of Military Affairs.

Now he’s spreading the same ethic for energy, water and waste throughout Minnesota’s far-flung government agencies and their 30,000 employees.

This month, Gov. Mark Dayton issued an order that requires all state agencies to hit aggressive and specific environmental goals in the next decade and a half — 30 percent less gasoline and diesel, 15 percent less water, and a 75 percent rate of recycling and composting. He’s following in the sustainability footsteps of about half of the Fortune 500 corporations and joining a growing number of blue states like California and Massachusetts and some red ones like North Carolina.

Cutting back on pollution and waste easily supersedes politics when state governments emphasize cost savings, said Alli Gold Roberts, state policy director for CERES, a national nonprofit that advises institutions on sustainability. Just as it is for corporations, “this is a bottom-line issue,” she said.

But getting there isn’t exactly easy.

Herke, now director of the state’s sustainability office, said if the military can do it, so can any other organization.

“Changing the culture there was pretty tough,” he said.

Minnesota’s military operations include 60 armories, Camp Ripley and a few other facilities — a total of 5 million square feet of property. The staff was small, Herke said, but every weekend 10,000 soldiers show up.

Herke’s initial problem was the electric bill. State and federal funding streams never provided enough for it, forcing him to cut back on other things. In short, he said, energy conservation became a way of getting the grass mowed.

With the support of Richard Nash, then adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, Herke and his staff assessed each building, adding new windows and insulation where necessary and selling off the ones that were hopeless. Each building manager got the energy bill for their facility so they could monitor their progress. That led to things like routinely shutting bay doors and turning off machinery at night.

“It was like being in a battle, going foxhole to foxhole,” he said. “Only this was building to building.”

In the second year, Herke said, he tracked a 12 percent drop in electric costs from behavioral changes alone.

Next, he said, everyone had to learn the difference between a green bin and a blue one, and what was recyclable and what wasn’t.

Herke said he found that people come in three flavors. The first are enthusiasts who embrace sustainability “because it’s right.” Second are those in the youngest generation who grew up with recycling and ask, “Why aren’t you doing it?” And the third, the hardest group to change, are the oldest who “want to know why,” he said.

He knew he had succeeded, he said, when he heard about a young soldier who told a general, “Sir, Col. Herke would be disappointed in you for putting that in the wrong container.”

Sandwich becomes compost

In the past two years, Herke and others in the state’s administration division have implemented the same disciplines at the 23 buildings of the Capitol complex in St. Paul. Recycling and other waste reduction efforts had been adopted in a piecemeal fashion, but the administration got serious in 2015, in part because of a new state law that laid out recycling goals of 75 percent for the metropolitan area.

The Capitol buildings were already at 70 percent, according to facilities management director Chris Guevin. The only way to improve was to add composting containers and teach the 9,000 people who work at the Capitol how to do it.

Now, all food waste goes to a facility in Rosemount and comes back as organic compost.

“That bologna sandwich is in the flower garden,” Guevin said.

Today the Capitol complex has a 95 percent composting and recycling rate, Guevin said. The upfront costs were large, but it saves $40,000 to $50,000 a year in hauling fees.

Energy use in the buildings has come down by 25 percent since 2008, even though the workforce has increased by 2,000 — saving $2 million a year. Getting another 30 percent will require the addition of even more alternative energy sources, such as the solar panels that went in on the roof of the new Senate Office Building last week, Guevin said.

Dayton’s order means that every state agency will have to undergo a similar process at every facility across Minnesota — a daunting challenge. It means encouraging local governments to devise community composting programs, for example, or installing electric car charging stations for the ever-growing fleet of state-owned electric cars.

The initial requirement, Herke said, is for every agency to measure exactly how much energy and water it used in 2017, and how much waste it produced, so each can document progress in the future.

That alone, he said, will be a first for Minnesota government.