Right now, not much but mounds of snow sit atop the roof of Edina’s public works building. But that will change in the spring, when the city installs solar panels to create a community solar garden.
Clean energy advocates say the solar array is just one way that metro area suburbs are leading the charge on energy efficiency in Minnesota. The suburbs make up a major part of the state’s carbon footprint, and in more affluent suburbs the reason is simple, Abby Finis said: Larger homes and longer commutes.
“We’re seeing a big shift in the general consciousness of energy among residents and among cities,” said Finis, senior planner for the Great Plains Institute, a sustainable energy nonprofit. “I think they are in the early stages of big change.”
St. Louis Park last month unveiled an energy plan with the goal of drawing all the city’s electricity from renewables by 2025. Bloomington is in the process of forming its first sustainability commission. Edina hired its first sustainability coordinator last year, and its Energy and Environment Commission is behind the upcoming solar garden.
Throughout the west metro, Xcel Energy has begun switching its streetlights to LED lights that it says are cheaper and greener.
Many leaders in sustainability, worried the Trump administration won’t do much to address climate change, applaud the recent actions taken by local governments.
“Local players are going to be much more important going forward than they ever have been before,” Finis said.
Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act, which turns 10 this year, set two benchmarks for the state back in 2007.
One was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 by 80 percent of the emissions level in 2005. The other was to require that 25 percent of the electricity provided by public utilities be renewable by 2025.
“We are achieving the renewable energy standard, and the utilities are really a big driver of that,” Finis said. “We are not quite achieving the carbon reduction goals.”
Suburbs: Big energy users
In 2013, a collaborative effort called the Regional Indicators Initiative outlined the performance of Minnesota cities in four areas of sustainability, including energy. It found that Lake Elmo, Edina and Rosemount had the highest per capita consumption of residential energy from 2007 to 2013.
The project received funding to gather more recent data, said Rick Carter, the integrative design team leader for LHB, Inc., which managed the project. But he doesn’t expect that suburbs will be any closer to reaching the standards set forth by the state energy act.
“We’re nowhere near that trend,” Carter said. “There’s maybe a slight downward trend ... but if you look at the total, it’s basically flat.”
The Edina solar garden is one of several projects in the pipeline for Cooperative Energy Futures, said Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, general manager for the south Minneapolis-based clean energy co-op. It likely will be the largest urban rooftop array in the state, he said.
“Minnesota is actually one of the most active states around community solar right now,” he said. “The industry here has just exploded.”
The state is likely to expand its solar capacity to 10 times its level last year, DenHerder-Thomas said. So many solar projects have been approved that Xcel has a backlog of arrays to connect to the grid.
However, solar is only one part of the effort to reduce statewide emissions, he said.
“The electricity section is definitely the biggest chunk of our carbon problem, but it’s by no means the only thing,” he said.
From rooftops to policy
Adopting energy action plans is one of the best ways to reduce a city’s carbon footprint, Finis said.
St. Louis Park created its plan with the support of Partners in Energy, a program started two years ago by Xcel Energy. Program manager Tami Gunderzik said Xcel has seen a significant jump in applications to join.
The interest in energy efficiency also can be seen in the number of cities registered for Minnesota GreenStep Cities, a volunteer program run by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It assists cities with their sustainability goals and has grown from 17 cities in 2010 to 111 this year.
Still, sustainability advocates say, residents in some suburbs could do a better job of consuming less energy.
DenHerder-Thomas said the Edina solar array should be able to generate enough electricity for 100 homes. But the suburb’s homes consume so much energy that the garden reached its cap at 66 subscribers.
“It’s about the size of the home and how many appliances [and] electronics there are,” he said. Switching to LED bulbs and newer appliances can reduce energy consumption at home, he said.
Only a part of the problem
Hari Osofsky, an energy law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, has dedicated much of her work to documenting suburban efforts to combat climate change. She has found that energy efficiency is not a partisan issue at the city level.
“For the most part, local energy actions tend to be pretty uncontroversial politically,” Osofsky said. “Energy efficiency saves money and so is good to do.”
Osofsky, Finis and Carter are part of the Minnesota Local Government Project for Energy Planning, or LoGoPEP, a collaborative project started last year to help cities improve energy efficiency.
“The goal is to see cities that are doing more and see how they can be models for other cities,” Osofsky said.
Electricity production is the largest source of greenhouse emissions, and sustainability advocates agree it is the easiest to fix. Xcel’s plans to shut down its coal-fired generators in Becker, Minn., also would eliminate the state’s largest single emitter of greenhouse gases.
Other emission sources, such as transportation and agriculture, are less prone to change.
“I’m still optimistic we’re going to get there. We’re just going to have to make some pretty dramatic change to get there,” Carter said. “It’s not going to be business as usual.”