By Tad Simons
In 2014, when the City of St. Cloud began its Renewable Energy and Efficiency Initiative, the primary goal—to generate 80% of the city’s electricity from renewable sources by 2018—was considered bold but attainable.
At the time, only 5% of the city’s electricity came from renewable sources. Getting to 80% would require a twin-pronged approached aimed at improving efficiency at both ends of the energy equation: production and consumption.
Now, that 80% goal seems almost humble. In 2018, the city reported that it had not only reached its 80% renewable goal, it had surpassed it—reaching 83% for the year. During the summer, when the city’s expanding acreage of solar panels is working at full capacity, the city’s renewable efficiency has climbed as high as 94%.
In 2017 alone, city officials say their efficiency initiatives reduced St. Cloud’s overall energy consumption by 66 million kilowatt hours—enough electricity to power 7,400 homes for an entire year, or the energy equivalent of 27,000 tons of coal. St. Cloud received the 2018 Sustainable City Award for this initiative from Minnesota GreenStep Cities and the League of Minnesota Cities.
“What St. Cloud has achieved with its energy-efficiency efforts is impressive,” says Diana McKeown, Metro CERTs (Clean Energy Resource Teams) director at the Great Plains Institute (GPI). “It really is a case study in what can be done, and that cities are the place to do it.”
GPI works with organizations and communities throughout the nation to develop nonpartisan, pragmatic solutions to transform the energy system in ways that benefit both the economy and the environment. But one of the remarkable things about St. Cloud’s success is how little help they needed, says McKeown.
“St. Cloud has been doing great things with sustainability for years. They did much of this on their own,” she says. “When the City Council and mayor set aggressive goals, and provide the leadership and support to get there, results like these can happen. It’s exciting, because the things they are doing are definitely replicable in other cities.”
Over the next 25 years, St. Cloud city officials estimate that their investment in renewable energy will save the city more than $35 million. And according to St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, while conservation is important to him, budget concerns have been the primary catalyst behind these initiatives.
“The recession was a significant motivator for us,” Kleis explains. “We are very tax-conscious and very rate-conscious, so we want to make sure that as a community we are not creating a burden for our residents. That’s priority No. 1. So, from my perspective, reducing—and in some cases eliminating—energy costs just makes good financial sense. And the combination of improved technologies, available vendors, and state and federal energy policy made it the right time to take this on.”
Improvements the city made
In the past five years, the city has:
- Upgraded its wastewater treatment plant so it now generates most of its own energy.
- Replaced its old sodium streetlights (along with traffic lights and lighting for public buildings) with low-wattage LED lights.
- Installed more than 20 solar “gardens” on rooftops and in other locations.
- Installed a state-of-the-art biofuel capturing system and generator (attached to the wastewater facility) that converts organic waste into biogas, providing heat and energy.
The city has also done comprehensive energy audits on all public buildings, developed policies to encourage sustainable green architecture, and continuously conducts public outreach and community education events to encourage broader citizen participation in the city’s overall energy-conservation efforts.
None of this happened overnight, though. Back in 2008, in the middle of the recession, the St. Cloud Area Joint Planning District formed a Sustainability Committee to explore local opportunities to heighten awareness of issues related to sustainability, energy efficiency, and climate change.
The committee included representatives from both the public and private sectors. After more than a year of research and public meetings, the committee produced what’s known as the St. Cloud Sustainability Framework Plan. The plan identified 17 different sustainable “best practice areas”—including land use, transportation, clean water, food supply, and recycling—and established a vision and goals for creating a more sustainable, efficient, cost-effective future for St. Cloud.
Deciding what to tackle
Energy efficiency was one of those goals, and also the most promising in terms of return on investment. But first, the city needed more data to help guide its decision-making.
“It’s a cliché, but you can’t improve what you don’t measure,” says Patrick Shea, St. Cloud director of public services. Using the state of Minnesota’s B3 benchmarking software (Building, Benchmarks, and Beyond), a tool that allows cities to track and compare local meter readings and other public data with state and national averages, Shea and his staff identified numerous areas where improvement and efficiency could lead to significant cost savings.
“The first step was to get a handle on energy billing for the city,” Shea says. “In 2013, the city had 400 individual bills from various power providers. It was confusing. Through the B3 process, we found accounts that were incorrectly billed and categorized, and were able to do things like locate malfunctioning meters where natural gas consumption was too high.”
As expected, the energy analysis also confirmed what the city already knew—that reengineering their wastewater treatment facility would get them almost halfway to their stated efficiency goal of 80%.
“In any given municipality in the U.S., drinking water and wastewater treatment accounts for about 40% of energy costs,” says Shea. “The biofuel system we installed was a guaranteed energy saver, and it ended up being 10-fold more efficient than we thought it would be, which was a nice bonus.”
Converting all the streetlights and public buildings to LED was another obvious money saver, along with an aggressive push to install solar panels on public buildings and create several solar gardens through partnerships with local solar providers. Solar alone is expected to save St. Cloud more than $25 million over the next 25 years, and perhaps more as the technology continues to improve.
The biofuel/wastewater facility was financed through a $4.6 million energy bond, and the streetlight improvement project through a $7.1 million tax abatement bond. But the overall financial risk was minimal, says Kleis, because the return on investment was basically guaranteed.
To mitigate risk on the solar projects, St. Cloud partnered with four local service providers to build six solar arrays, and the city and its citizens purchase the resulting energy through subscriptions. One such project is located on 60 acres north of St. Joseph and contains a whopping 19,440 solar panels. According to the provider, IPS Solar, this “garden” will generate enough electricity to power more than 1,000 homes, at an estimated cost savings of $8 million over the next 25 years.
Future is even greener
St. Cloud isn’t stopping there. In 2019 and beyond, the city plans to optimize waste-feed sources for its biofuel generator, continue exploring opportunities for wind and solar, and expand its involvement of the larger community in conservation efforts.
This latter effort is important because electricity only accounts for about 38% of St. Cloud’s energy usage; the rest is natural gas. Teaching homeowners how they can save money through greater energy efficiency is another way of pulling the whole community together to ensure a more sustainable future.
Toward that end, Kleis himself hosts all-are-welcome community dinners at his house several times a year, so he can tell residents about the changes he’s made—and savings accrued— after fixing issues identified in a free Xcel energy audit.
“We as community leaders have to walk the talk,” says Kleis. “Just as the best way to prevent crime for neighbors is to know each other, the same is true of energy. If neighbors can get together and share these best practices, everybody wins. It’s leading by example.”
Environmental advocates hope that St. Cloud’s energy achievements will encourage other cities to accelerate their energy-conservation efforts. And according to Metro CERTS’ Diana McKeown, that may already be happening. “With the metro comprehensive plans that were due at the end of 2018, we are seeing many more clean energy goals and climate action plans than we’ve seen in the past,” she says.
As St. Cloud is proving, smart energy conservation can produce more than one kind of green.
Tad Simons is a freelance writer from St. Paul.