Wind turbines, plus solar and biomass, power the University of Minnesota campus in Morris. Credit: Dave Hanson / University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

One participant, the University of Minnesota at Morris, already uses 100% renewable electricity, but is now looking for options to eliminate its natural gas heating systems. 

While colleges and universities have been leaders in adopting clean electricity, many still face a daunting hurdle in becoming fully carbon neutral: Aging heating systems that rely on fossil fuels.

The University of Minnesota at Morris, for example, already gets 100% of its electricity from wind, solar and biomass. But the buildings on campus are still heated by natural gas.

To solve that problem, Morris is joining two other Minnesota colleges taking advantage of a free net-zero energy planning initiative offered by a St. Paul company with district energy expertise.

Through Ever-Green Energy’s “Roadmap to Carbon Neutrality” program, Morris sustainability leaders learned energy efficiency projects combined with a low-temperature hot water system, geothermal, or capturing heat from a local ethanol plant could be among the solutions moving the campus to carbon neutrality.

“It gave us some unique insights by modeling all these different scenarios as well as provided us some deeper insights into how the costs are different for every model,” said Troy Goodnough, sustainability director.

Explicitly developed for colleges, Ever-Green Energy chose three Minnesota colleges — Morris, the University of St. Thomas, and the College of St. Benedict — for the first program and plans to announce the second cohort within a few weeks. 

The planning the company provides involves a study of clean energy production assets, distribution systems, building energy consumption, and energy efficiency opportunities. Assessments investigate renewable solutions to displace fossil fuels, suggestions for district energy systems’ improvements, and financial strategies to pay for projects.  

Ever-Green Energy comes to the program with nearly 40 years of operating district energy systems, first in downtown St. Paul and then later in Milwaukee,   Duluth and Cincinnati. As a consultant, the company provides planning and engineering on higher education campuses around the country, including  Stanford and Oberlin College.

A solar array at the University of Minnesota at Morris. Its wind turbines, seen in the background, also provide electricity for the campus. (photo courtesy of Kari Adams / University of Minnesota)

Planning for carbon neutrality 

Colleges have been at the forefront of combating climate change for decades, but just a handful of schools can claim carbon neutrality, among them Colgate University, University of San Francisco, American University, Bowdoin College, Colby College, and Middlebury College, according to Second Nature, which promotes sustainability in the higher education space.

Ever-Green Energy began providing free expertise through the carbon neutrality program to gain a more in-depth knowledge of the net-zero challenges facing higher ed, said Nina Axelson, vice president of sustainability and outreach. The early learning from Stanford and Oberlin led to a desire to grow the company’s knowledge. 

“We think it will improve our work in the future because higher education is a key market for us,” Axelson said.

Colleges that sought a place in the program have aggressive decarbonization plans, yet struggle at some point with implementing the next level of solutions, Axelson said, particularly in finding alternatives to natural gas for heating.

Small town campuses with plenty of space sometimes have more options than schools in dense urban environments, said Michael Ahern, Ever-Green’s senior vice president of product development. More land allows for large scale solar or other approaches while city colleges may have to try geothermal heating and cooling or a totally different plan that fits within dense confines, he said.

Wherever the college campuses sit, they generally share the problem of using fossil fuels for heating. “The biggest challenge is the elimination of combustion of natural gas,” Ahern said. “The reality is natural gas is cheap and that’s a problem.”

Many of the recommendations to schools for heating moves them away from steam to hot water heating. Steam systems use natural gas while hot water heating has cleaner sources, Ahern said. Heating and cooling buildings through district energy solutions of the kind Ever-Green manages for clients are, of course, an approach Ahern and Axelson recommend because it cuts energy costs.

For many schools, even getting close to net-zero will take several years — particularly if they’ve made significant recent investments in their current systems, Ahern said. Concerns over the pandemic combined with the potential for declining future enrollment also stand as barriers.  

The heating plant and biomass facility at the University of Minnesota campus in Morris. (photo courtesy of Kari Adams / University of Minnesota)

Collegiate net-zero solutions

Ever-Green suggests retrofits for campus buildings to decrease energy consumption, a good strategy that can take years since few institutions have the budget to manage it all at once. St. Benedict’s has invested significantly in retrofitting buildings, and now faces more expensive options to reach carbon neutrality, among them solar, wind, or geo-exchange, Ahern said.  

The same is true for St. Thomas, which hopes to reach carbon neutrality by 2035. Again, the challenge is heating and cooling. Ever-Green suggested geothermal or aquifer thermal storage could work. 

In Morris, the university, the city, and a local health campus have created a “Morris Model” that could result in a shared district energy system and other shared projects. The model sets goals of having 80% of energy in the county to come from local sources combined with a 30% reduction in energy consumption by 2030, said Bryan Herrmann, vice chancellor for finance and facilities.

Morris uses half the power from its wind projects to power the school and then offsets the rest of fossil fuel energy consumption through purchasing renewable energy credits generated by the turbines. It is a complex arrangement configured with assistance from donors and Otter Tail Power, Herrmann said.

The campus now must contend with finding money to retrofit buildings and to move them to low-temperature hot water heating. Goodnough, the sustainability director, wants whatever solution the campus chooses to benefit the local community, including farmers and perhaps other towns in the region. “There are some changes that we’re going to have to make to get us to the future where we’ll want to be,” he said.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.