Solar panels atop a building in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis.
Solar panels atop a building in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. Credit: City of St. Louis Park / Courtesy

Nearly a decade after Minneapolis passed the state’s first climate action plan, more than a dozen Minnesota cities have followed suit in creating local blueprints for reducing carbon emissions and preparing urban environments for more extreme weather events.

From tiny Grand Marais on the North Shore to Twin Cities suburbs, cities are using climate action plans to frame conversations around policies and investments. They are spurring new initiatives such as building energy benchmarking programs, and they are driving investments in rooftop solar, energy efficiency, and electric transportation infrastructure.

“An increasing number of cities are joining the fight against climate change because they’re seeing local impacts,” said Abby Finis, formerly the senior program manager for communities at the Great Plains Institute. “You’re seeing that residents are increasingly concerned with inaction, and that’s why the leaders are pushing for more climate action.”

She points to examples such as Rochester Mayor Kim Norton’s pursuit of big projects involving efficiency and solar in municipal buildings and Duluth Mayor Emily Larson’s investment in resilience projects after the city suffered devastating floods and storms over the past few years. Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors and councils have set strong environmental policies and been cited as national leaders in sustainability.

Some cities’ climate plans grew from previous initiatives such as GreenStep Cities, a 12-year-old public-private program focused on sustainability and quality of life, and Xcel Energy’s Partners in Energy project, which helps communities decrease electricity consumption. The plans represent a more detailed step forward by targeting emissions, transportation, efficiency, equity and water management.

Building on smaller steps

One of the first organized approaches to environmental stewardship came in 2010 when GreenStep Cities debuted. Managed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and several partners, the program offered communities five levels of achievement involving energy efficiency and green building, land use, transportation, environmental management and community growth. 

GreenStep Cities has enrolled more than 144 communities representing half the state’s population. 

In the program’s first decade, which ended in 2020, participants saw a 25% drop in greenhouse gas emissions, saved nearly $8.4 million in energy costs, built at least 590 renewable energy sites, and installed more than 130 electric charging stations, according to the GreenStep Cities website.

Another program that helped put some cities on a path toward bigger climate plans is Xcel’s Partners in Energy. Begun several years ago and managed by the Minneapolis nonprofit Center for Energy and Environment, it works with communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Colorado on energy reduction. For the first half of 2021, Xcel had 11,700 residential energy efficiency program participants and 2,500 commercial-industrial participants in the three states. The company said enrollment increased 26% from the same time in 2020, another reflection of interest from cities in improving efficiency and reducing carbon.

Another collaborative initiative, Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTS), provides money and expertise to cities and businesses wishing to reduce energy costs through efficiency, LED lighting, solar and other approaches. In addition, the Clean Energy Resource Teams has helped bridge the equity divide by helping retrofit manufactured home communities, many housing immigrant families.

Cities found, however, that as good as these programs are, they still needed a better overview of their changing climate and more strategies toward carbon reduction, such as planning for electric vehicles, electrifying heating, adding renewables and managing wastewater. 

Ted Redmond, founder of the consulting group PaleBLUEdot, said climate vulnerability assessments and greenhouse gas inventories provide two foundational documents that assist in creating climate action plans that offer more action and less analysis.

Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, passed a climate action plan late last year after participating in GreenStep Cities and Partners in Energy. Sustainability manager Grace Hancock said the plan, which passed easily by the City Council after being endorsed by its energy and environment commission, provides a more precise roadmap for reaching the city’s goal of reducing emissions by 45% by 2030 and becoming net-zero by 2050. 

“Looking holistically at both climate mitigation actions and adaptation actions together within the Climate Action Plan provided the opportunity for this work to come together,” Hancock said.

Growing urgency and ambition

In a recent report, Democracy and Climate LLC consultant Kate Knuth identified 13 Minnesota cities with climate action strategies and another 20 with climate vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans. A handful have sustainability plans — Morris, Oakdale and St. Anthony Village — that include climate action sections. Most communities passed climate action plans within the last five years, although Minneapolis has had one since 2013. Only one county, Hennepin, has a climate plan in place.

Several cities on the list — St. Louis Park, Edina, Maplewood, Northfield and others — had reached the highest GreenStep Cities level of progress and may have been looking for a more focused strategy, Knuth said. Others had begun to see the impact of climate change or understood floods, hotter temperatures and more violent storms may be on the way. And communities wanted to better prepare for a growing number of residents installing solar, buying electric vehicles, and investing in battery storage.

Knuth said that the recent plans “are more ambitious than they would have been five years ago in terms of emission reductions. I think the impacts of climate change are becoming more real for people. We can see it and feel it in our everyday lives in ways we couldn’t even five years ago.”

Another change has been timelines. The first round of plans typically offered communities roadmaps for 20 years. Recently, consultants have begun offering 5- to 10-year approaches that offer quicker wins and lay out a foundation for longer-term emission reductions. Those wins might involve enrolling homeowners in energy efficiency programs, installing electric vehicle chargers, adding solar to city buildings and passing a sustainable building code, Knuth said.

Consultants play a crucial role in climate action planning. In Minnesota, almost all the plans are written by Redmond, Finis or the Center for Energy and Environment. A Minnesota Pollution Control Agency grant led to several climate adaptation studies Redmond wrote a few years ago. The infrastructure of agencies and consultants provides a fertile field for nurturing climate action plans.

Seeing the results

St. Louis Park, another Minneapolis suburb, is a nationally recognized leader on climate. The city passed a climate action plan in early 2018 and began reducing carbon in city buildings. Sustainability manager Emily Ziring said the city wants “to let every resident, worker, and visitor to St. Louis Park understand that there’s a role for each of us to play in climate action.”

The city tries to walk the walk. A new solar array on the recreation center will reduce energy consumption. Landscaping equipment, snowblowers and many fleet vehicles are electric. The city boasts a net-zero nature center. These projects and others show the city’s leadership and encourage residents to invest in green technologies, Ziring said.

St. Louis Park extends green share initiatives to private building owners. For example, the Solar Sundown program encourages property owners of existing residential and commercial buildings to install rooftop solar and sends them a check for 4% to 6% of the project’s cost after completion, she said.

Even if it doesn’t seem like a huge rebate, the program has yielded $2.7 million of solar installations for a $115,000 investment by the city, Ziring said, with the payback in energy savings reaching $3 million for property owners. “We were able to leverage a lot of private dollars that will pay for property owners for many, many years,” she said.

The city’s two energy efficiency programs include Climate Champions, which encourages commercial building owners to get free energy audits. If property owners do efficiency projects and receive utility rebates, the city will match the rebate. Ziring sees it as a “sweetener” to help lower upfront costs. Twenty businesses received audits, and seven have applied for the city’s rebate.

The cost-share program Building Operations Champion offers building owners an opportunity to send building personnel through an accreditation program with the cost covered mainly by the city. The recently unveiled program focuses on commercial and multifamily buildings with the idea that improved building operations will reduce carbon emissions, she said.

Pandemic distractions

Climate work does tend to wax and wane with other priorities. The southeastern Minnesota city of Winona had worked with Partners in Energy several years ago on a plan to reach net-zero by 2050. A few years ago, it introduced programs for energy retrofits for businesses and low-income homeowners and public housing residents, said John Howard, the city’s natural resources sustainability coordinator. In addition, as an anchor tenant in a local community solar garden, the city offsets about half its power with clean energy.

The pandemic slowed climate initiatives in Winona for the past two years but now things are picking up. Howard said the city will develop a sustainability plan with the Center for Energy and Environment. “This should set our goals for the next 10 years,” he said.

The small city of Faribault south of the Twin Cities started working on climate programming with Partners in Energy through a state-funded 2018 climate and vulnerability report. Faribault also enrolled in GreenStep Cities and created an environmental commission after encouragement from community members, said city planner Dave Wanberg.

The city created an energy action plan through Partners in Energy and worked on improving energy efficiency with the city’s biggest industries, he said. That proved challenging since two of the largest employers, turkey supplier Jennie O, and HVAC manufacturer Daikin Applied, already had efficiency programs underway. Just 10 people came to a breakfast where representatives of those two companies spoke about their initiatives, Wanberg said.

“I was discouraged,” he said. But the event at least drew media attention and the City Council noticed. So Wanberg decided to shift the energy action plan to promoting Home Energy Squad visits to the city’s manufactured-home communities. Supported by Xcel and CenterPoint Energy and operated by the Center for Energy and Environment, the Home Energy Squad program gives homeowners free or reduced-cost energy audits and information on utility rebates and repair costs.

“That was really successful,” Wanberg said. The initiative spread to Northfield and he’s since spoken to cities and advocates in Wisconsin and Colorado. Another effort involved sending teams of two people to businesses that had received information on switching to LEDs and installing other energy measures, with a few companies acting on the advice, he said.

Wanberg may revive the concept of sending people to speak directly to businesses. In the meantime, he works with the local group “Growing Up Healthy” to develop grassroots community-based energy plans. He said that two manufactured home communities where Spanish-speaking families predominate will be the first targeted by the program.

A long way to go

The impact of cities’ climate action plans without greater involvement from state and federal governments has a ceiling. Cities have small budgets, and sustainability departments have even fewer resources. Some sustainability managers or directors work only part-time and have little or no staff. And climate action can sometimes get delayed by the myriad of other important issues civic officials face, such as public health, safety, economic development and housing affordability.

Yet even a small number of cities can have an effect, said Redmond, of PaleBLUEdot. He’s written several climate adaptation and action plans for cities in Minnesota and in other states. 

“You’re not necessarily going to see a massive change right away,” Redmond said. “But you do eventually see change. Emissions will go down, brought about from actions from all sorts of people, utilities, and communities.”

The list of future projects for Faribault and other cities remains long. Wanberg seeks more electric vehicles for the city and chargers for the community. The town will be tabling at various events, handing out LED bulbs and having volunteers speaking about energy. Tree replacement and preservation have become a priority, along with pollinator-friendly gardens. Solar at the wastewater plant could become a possibility.

“The city has a really important part in leading, but we definitely aren’t doing all the work,” he said. “We’re coordinating with so many people that are helping with all of this work … it takes a lot of different people to make progress.”

Edina’s already made progress on its plan, having passed a sustainable building ordinance in April. Hancock expects at least 1 million square feet in 10 new projects will be affected by the regulation. She said that the wealthy city will also be looking for programs to decrease the energy burden 29% of its citizens face, from seniors living in older homes to Somali immigrants living in substandard housing. 

Consultants say they continue to see interest from communities in climate action plans. Redmond is finishing plans for LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Finis said St. Cloud, one of the state’s largest cities, will soon announce climate goals. “We’re continuing to see cities across the state who want to do something and are really active but it’s going to take more effort and more intentionality to actually start seeing the benefits and the results,” she 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.