Small Minnesota town has big climate goals

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Morris, Minn., is a small town in western Minnesota with big clean energy goals.

By 2030 the town aims to produce 80 percent of the energy it consumes from renewable sources and reduce energy use by 30 percent.

What started with LED lights and an international sister city program in 2015 has become an all out sustainability effort unique enough to garner national accolades.

Recently retired city manager Blaine Hill said a light went on for him when Morris joined the Climate-Smart Municipalities project and was paired with the German town of Saerbeck.

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“We had pretty cheap electricity, and we had pretty cheap fuel for our vehicles,” recalls Hill. “And we got to see a small little community in Germany that didn’t have that.”

Hill started thinking about the great solar and wind energy potential in Morris. He started bringing sustainability ideas like LED streetlights to the city council, but there was no grand plan at the time.

“It came back down to sensible reasonable kinds of things that you could take a look at and say, ‘Yeah, we could try to do that, that makes sense,’” said Hill.

Sustainability quickly gathered momentum as Hill learned more about resources available for planning and specific projects. In addition to clean energy, the city aims to stop sending waste to landfills by 2025.

The city joined forces with the University of Minnesota Morris, Stevens County, Morris schools and other partners to create the Morris Model.

a man stands next to a sign

Morris sustainability coordinator Griffin Peck stands next to a recently installed sign part of a walking tour through downtown explaining the Morris Model.

Dan Gunderson | MPR News

In 2018 a brainstorming meeting resulted in 100 sustainability projects from renewable energy to composting food waste.

“And I still remember people going ‘Well, that’s not gonna happen, you know, that’s not gonna happen,” recalls Hill. “And yet they happened.”

About half of the 100 projects are complete or in progress. The initiative was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy Energizing Rural Communities competition.

Sustainability coordinator Griffin Peck loves to show off some of the highly visible projects. City hall, the community center, the library and the municipal liquor store are all powered by rooftop solar panels. The library is heated and cooled by a geothermal system.

Peck is the first sustainability coordinator in Morris. He’s been on the job just over a year.

He envisions a micro grid with battery storage so public buildings can function off the grid in emergencies.

But he will need to find the resources to make that happen.

“Sustainability isn’t a one size fits all model. And different models are going to work for different communities in different climate zones,” said Peck of the approach Morris takes to clean energy. “We’re a town of 5,000 in a county of 10,000. So a lot of the cities that are doing these projects are much larger, and have a lot more resources than we do.”

a brick building with solar panels on the roof

Several city buildings, including the municipal liquor store in Morris, are powered by solar panels on their roofs.

Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Sustainability is addicting

But local leaders have found the resources to make sustainability projects happen.

“We’ve embraced just that spirit of sustainability. And it’s addicting,” said Mayor Kevin Wohlers.

Morris voters elected Wohlers mayor last fall after he served nearly a decade on the city council.

He admits he was one of the naysayers when the Morris Model began.

“I went into that pretty much kicking and screaming,” Wohlers recounts as he talks about grappling with the reality of climate change.

“I don’t look at this as a political right or left issue at all. It’s just about doing the right thing,” said Wohlers about the inevitable political debate over the veracity of climate change science.

“I’m a father, I’m a grandparent, and you look at things through that lens you can put aside all the politics and you can say, ‘How do I want to leave this community?’”

a man in a white shirt

University of Minnesota Morris sustainability director Troy Goodnough said leadership is the key to communities successfully making the clean energy transition.

Dan Gunderson | MPR News

But politics do influence how the key players in this project think. Western Minnesota is reliably conservative, although Morris is a slightly more liberal outlier.

“You don’t want to get people mad at you the moment you start talking, that doesn’t help build relationships,” said University of Minnesota Morris Sustainability director Troy Goodnough. “I’m a sustainability director — I care about climate change. Right? But opening a dialogue around climate change isn’t the place to start.”

Goodnough and other team members are intentional about instead focusing on local challenges and solutions, self sufficiency and cheaper electricity.

“One thing that does really make a difference in rural Minnesota conversations is money talks,” said Goodnough. “I think that’s just Minnesotans are very practical, right. There’s no doubt about that, and I think that wins often times.”

a wind turbine against a blue and white sky

A wind turbine at the University of Minnesota West Central Research & Outreach Center in Morris is part of a renewable fuels research initiative.

Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The U of M Morris is a key partner in the Morris Model. City officials have access to expertise to help guide decision making, and students take on tasks like writing a grant for electric school buses or researching sustainability projects.

“The university could do the work by itself and it would be far less effective,” said Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen. “It’s much, much more effective to do it on a scale that allows us to pilot something that could be scaled up, we can try it in the city, we can try it on campus, we can try it in a farm environment.”

The U of M Morris campus has solar arrays and wind turbines generating electricity, solar hot water generation and biomass gasifier pilot project. University officials say the campus produces the most renewable energy per student in the country.

The Morris Model spreads beyond the community . The University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center has a variety of research projects targeting clean energy and sustainability in agriculture.

a woman stands near flowers

University of Minnesota Morris Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen believes the Morris Model makes work done by the university more effective.

Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Agriculture in Minnesota is responsible for most in-state emissions of both nitrous oxide and methane, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“If we don’t address energy and agriculture, it’s difficult to say that we’re addressing climate change,” said Michael Reese, Renewable Energy Program director at the Center. “We’re focusing on agriculture, we’re focusing on farms, trying to make these systems work out and trying to decarbonize agriculture.”

While the research is important for creating viable clean energy solutions, Reese doesn’t think it’s the most important factor. Leadership matters most.

That’s a common theme from everyone involved in the Morris Model.

“This is hard for any Minnesotan to say, ‘we’re good enough,’” said Goodnough. “The Morris model, it’s saying we are good because we have achieved some really good stuff.”

But there’s no time to savor success, there’s still a long list of projects and new goals.

“We need to continue to aspire to be a model,” said Goodnough. “You have to keep making that choice. And your leadership has to keep making that choice.”

Retired Morris city manager Blaine Hill still hears from city leaders across Minnesota wanting to learn from the Morris Model.

But he says he also hears from city officials who reject the sustainability path Morris has chosen.

“If you think nothing’s going to happen and you’re just going to keep doing what you’re doing, then you’re going to be way behind,” is Hill’s message to those leaders. “You have to understand this is coming, electric vehicles are coming, charging stations are coming, sustainability, all this stuff is coming. And you want to be able to get ahead of it.”

a water tower against a blue sky

Wind turbines and solar panels are seen across the community as Morris embraces renewable energy.

Dan Gunderson | MPR News

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