A small bright spot emerged when the pandemic forced the Science Museum of Minnesota to go dark for months on end.

With no visitors allowed inside, crews could quickly replace more than 6,000 light bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs — part of expanding environmental efforts at the St. Paul museum.

"Climate change has become a high priority," said Patrick Hamilton, the museum's director of global change initiatives. "There's a lot more urgency."

Earlier this spring, the Science Museum hit a major milestone of reducing carbon emissions by 50%, nine years ahead of schedule thanks largely to signing onto an Xcel Energy program that powers the museum with wind energy.

The next target: make the museum 100% carbon neutral by 2050, if not sooner.

Nonprofits and foundations across Minnesota are boosting green efforts internally, from using environmentally sensitive building designs to divesting themselves of fossil fuel assets.

The Science Museum, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, is hoping to lead by example, increasing water conservation and decreasing pollution at its sprawling 370,000-square-foot building on the Mississippi River bluffs in downtown St. Paul.

The museum is exploring ways to recycle stormwater and plans this summer to plant wheat, among other perennial crops, to improve soil and water quality while exploring other ways to reduce the cost and carbon emissions of heating and cooling its building.

It comes at a critical time for the Science Museum, where leaders estimate that pandemic closures cost them about $15 million, leading in turn to steep layoffs and furloughs. Visitors bring in about a third of the revenue in the museum's $40 million annual budget.

Walking the talk

While the cost savings related to green measures may be smaller, it's money that can be retooled for programs instead of operations. Plus, the projects can help educate visitors on the importance of green measures. More than 800,000 people passed through the museum's doors in 2017.

"They're really trying to do their part to exemplify what good resource management is about," said Mark Doneux, administrator of the Capitol Region Watershed District, which is working with the museum to study how to reuse rainwater. "They are really a model."

The Science Museum isn't the only Minnesota nonprofit that's been recently focused on green measures.

In St. Paul, Springboard for the Arts is unveiling its new building later this year, redeveloping a former car dealership off University Avenue. With the help of the watershed district, the nonprofit turned an asphalt parking lot into a mini-park with a walking path, rain garden and cistern to capture stormwater runoff.

In Eden Prairie, Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies installed a grey water drip irrigation system — the first of its kind in Minnesota — during a 2016 building expansion, recycling wastewater to irrigate landscaping.

The foundation, which is the largest private foundation in Minnesota in the amount of money it grants each year, also added solar panels and put in geothermal technology.

Donations, investments

The McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis eliminated coal companies from its investments in 2016, and, among other measures, launched bike trainings and encouraged employees to bike to work to cut carbon emissions.

The philanthropic sector also has seen a rise in donations to environmental causes in Minnesota and nationally. Last year, Giving USA estimated that donations to environment and animal organizations grew 11% in 2019, the sixth consecutive year of growth.

The Science Museum has been working for years to retro­fit the six-story building that opened in 1999, implementing green measures as technology advanced.

In 2010, the museum's annual electricity consumption equaled the amount of electricity used by every home in an 18-block area of St. Paul. Since then, the museum has reduced its electricity use each year.

Installing heat-recovery chillers in 2015 allowed the museum to reuse heat energy, saving about $300,000 a year while slashing carbon emissions by one third.

The museum already had installed solar panels on its roof and changed out the adjacent parking ramp's bulbs to LEDs before it started its $2.5 million project to upgrade its lighting infrastructure and install interior LED bulbs. Switching out the theatrical-exhibit lighting for LEDs will be the final step over the next few years.

This spring, the Science Museum also expanded a gravel bed that the Mississippi Park Connection uses as a nursery, holding about 1,000 bare-root trees that will later be planted along the river. While the project won't help the museum hit its own green targets, it does help create a healthy forest along the river nearby and is another educational tool.

"It's absolutely significant," said Katie Nyberg, executive director of the Mississippi Park Connection, of the museum's efforts.

"They can be a leader not just for the museum industry but for other landowners in downtown."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141