MORRIS, MINN. - It was a gutsy goal.

By the end of 2010, the University of Minnesota, Morris, campus would be carbon-neutral. Maybe even "carbon-negative."

It hasn't panned out, exactly. Although the university has made strides in using renewable energy, carbon-neutral is a thorny label, it discovered. Biomass gasifiers are tough to get running. Wind turbines are tricky to finance. But sometime this year Morris will be able to say: "We produce more energy than we use."

Morris' successes and mistakes are providing lessons to the many other colleges and universities aiming to go green. Morris is regularly included in publications and conferences on renewable energy. Sen. Al Franken plans to hold an energy roundtable on campus this month.

"There are all kinds of challenges. It's nuanced. It's complicated," said Troy Goodnough, Morris' sustainability coordinator. "We're learning by doing."

In 2001, years before Morris' slogan became "a renewable, sustainable education," students made a pitch to the college: Subscribe to a utility company's new wind-power program. It would be more expensive. At that time, wind power cost about 2 cents more per kilowatt hour. To power the student center for a year, add $15,000.

The college offered a trade: It would do wind power, but in exchange, students would have to save the equivalent amount in other energy costs. Use less water. Recycle more.

They agreed. Morris signed a three-year contract.

"It was a lightning moment for all of us, I think," said Lowell Rasmussen, vice chancellor for finance and facilities.

Since then, the school has erected a wind turbine -- with another on the way -- put up 32 solar panels and built a biomass gasifier, which turns corn cobs into energy. Nearly half the campus' heating comes from gasifying local corn residue and prairie grass pellets. About 60 percent of its electricity flows from wind. A second wind turbine is under construction.

Students are leading a study of how the campus might compost.

"They push us harder," Rasmussen said. "They don't come in with low expectations."

Testing, perfecting biomass

The biomass gasifier was built in 2008 but did not run with any consistency until this fall. "We had major issues with fuel density and fuel uniformity," Rasmussen said.

They tried prairie grass, corn cobs, wood chips, wheat straw and harvested soybean plants. (Soybean plants, Rasmussen said, were "a big disappointment.") They tried grinding, compacting, blending and making briquettes and pellets.

"We are now closing in on the range and variation of fuels that we can successfully gasify," he said. Once created, that gas can be a substitute for natural gas.

For a few more months, the facility will remain in the research phase. So an operator might run it for five days, then pause it for five days to collect samples and do analysis.

Eventually, that data will be available to the public -- and other campuses and businesses hoping to build their own burner.

Morris buys its cobs and grass from farms within a 20-mile radius. In Vermont, Middlebury College's gasifier burns locally sourced wood chips. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., is developing its biomass burner now.

So far, it's tough to compare the approaches. They're all so different. "It's an emerging industry," Rasmussen said.

Then come roadblocks

Colleges face "a whole host" of barriers in becoming more sustainable, said Michael Kinsley, a senior consultant with the Rocky Mountain Institute.

For one, small schools often expect that they don't have the expertise to switch to renewable energy, according to Kinsley's 2010 publication "Accelerating Campus Climate Initiatives." But Morris' experience disproves that theory, it says.

Morris is "a small school with limited in-house expertise in renewable energy," the publication notes. "Despite these limitations, the school is a leader in wind and biomass power."

That's in part because of the partnerships Morris makes with nearby research labs, Kinsley's team found, such as the neighboring USDA North Central Conservation and Research Laboratory. The team also gave Morris kudos for finding creative ways to finance its first wind turbine.

Campus leaders expected that once that first turbine was running, it would get credits for energy that, not used on campus, went back out onto the grid. Those credits would subtract from its carbon used, leading to the coveted "carbon neutral" label. Turns out it isn't that simple.

Once out on the grid, the power company gets credit for those credits.

"It's a dangerous term," Rasmussen said of "carbon neutral." Taken literally, he said, it would require a campus to tally things like how students get to campus.

A high-tech future

It started with wind energy, but it won't end there.

Even with six wind turbines -- or eight, or 10 -- the campus will never be able to get 75 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources, Rasmussen said. "The higher you set your goals, the more integrated you must become."

That means using weather and prices to predict which energy source to use the following day.

"Right now, the switch is either on or off," Rasmussen said. "Soon, we'll be making decisions not only about how much we use, but where we get our power from."

That high-tech future doesn't surprise Annie Olson.

Olson was one of those students urging the school to go green a decade ago. She graduated in 2004 but visits campus occasionally, once donning a hard hat to check out an energy-efficient remodel. She was dazzled by the technology.

"It's stuff we couldn't even imagine back in 2001," she said. "Morris has done a lot more than we could have expected."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168