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New Green Prairie Community Shining Example of Sustainability

January 13, 2014 By Maria Brun, Graduate Research Fellow

2013 was a year of notable progress for clean energy in Minnesota. Most notably were the Solar Standard, the development of a value of solar tariff, and decision to study the feasibility of increasing the Renewable Portfolio goal to 40%. After efforts led by environmental groups and concerned citizens, the Public Utilities Commission also agreed to reevaluate the costs associated with energy related pollution and is requiring Xcel energy to consider retiring Sherco 1 and 2, part of one of the dirtiest coal plants in the nation.

It’s clear from this year’s progress and over a decade of being on the leading edge of energy policy that Minnesota understands the value and urgency of boosting clean energy production. But what is often overlooked is conservation. In fact, this year Minnesota fell out of the top ten states for energy efficiency in the Energy Efficiency Score Card and was labeled as a “state losing ground.”

But there are some cases where Minnesota is making strides. A shining example is the new “green dorm” that opened this fall on the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM) campus.

UMM has a long history of integrating sustainability into the campus, utilizing the large wind, solar, and rich agricultural resources of West Central Minnesota with its two 1.65 MW wind turbines, a biomass gasification plant, and solar thermal and photovoltaic systems. A fleet of electric and hybrid electric vehicles to reduces the campus’s environmental footprint even further. The Green Prairie Community (GPC) is the newest addition, expanding housing choices for students while aiming to conserve energy, water, and the natural prairie environment.

It may not be as iconic as the wind turbines or have as tangible an economic impact as the biomass plant that uses locally bought agricultural waste, but resource efficient buildings are a key component to a cleaner energy future for Minnesota.

Representing 40% of U.S. energy consumption, around 40 quadrillion Btus, are residential and commercial buildings. Assuming Minnesota is about average, this equates to about 750 trillion Btus of energy going just to operate our buildings. With the vast majority of heating and electricity used in Minnesota being produced by coal and natural gas, buildings are a huge liability when it comes to Minnesota’s carbon footprint.

The two story, 27.5 thousand square foot community housing 72 students is designed to meet LEED gold standards as well as the B3 State of Minnesota Sustainable Building Guidelines, now mandatory for new buildings funded in part or whole by the State. The latter takes a comprehensive look at building design from water and energy, the indoor environment, as well as materials and waste.

According to UMM’s Sustainability Director, Troy Goodnough, the conservation-minded design starts with the building’s skeleton. Constructed with insulated concrete forms, essentially an envelope of concrete and thick layers of insulation as the name suggests, “once this building is heated up or cooled down, it’s going to stay there,” minimizing the amount of energy needed to keep the dorms at a comfortable temperature.

To further reduce energy use, daylight is utilized as much as possible for illumination and sensors minimize the time lights stay on. Low flow fixtures also reduce the building’s water demand.

With these and other efficiency measures, the dorm is projected to save 25% of electricity and over 850 thousand gallons of water per year compared to baseline. Though the initial building cost was higher than a standard design, the total energy and water savings and incentives from Otter Tail Power Company are projected to render a payback time of 11.3 years. Sustainability doesn’t end with its design. The dorm also uses sustainably made flooring, low VOC paints, encourages biking with a service station and ample bike parking, and has an onsite orchard, edible landscaping, and rain gardens. But perhaps even more important is the educational component.

Half of the battle of reducing energy use is modifying behavior. Despite technologies and behaviors that are economically sound, getting people to adopt the technology and behavior is surprisingly difficult. One cause of this so-called “energy efficiency gap” is a lack of knowledge and understanding of energy use.

To address the educational and behavioral aspects of sustainability, two of the four wings in the GPC are sustainable lifestyle wings that act as a green living lab. Students who opt to live in these communities take part in green education, community meals with locally sourced ingredients (some coming from the onsite gardens), and learn how to change their behaviors to reduce their energy and resource consumption. Of course, further opportunities for education and outreach are available in the campus’s environmental studies and science majors, through service projects, and research and mentorship opportunities for students.

Minnesota’s strong progress on clean energy generation policy is admirable. However, even if the State meets its current renewable energy goal (roughly 28% of total purchased electricity generated by renewables), as the total energy consumed increases, the amount of energy produced from non-renewable energy will also continue to rise. Tackling the demand problem along with supply is necessary if Minnesota wants to see the closure of our dirtiest power plants and a reduced reliance on fossil fuels in the foreseeable future.

Projects like the GPC, conforming to the State’s B3 standards and incorporating education on energy use and sustainability, are a solid foundation to build upon. After a successful first half of the 2013-2014 legislative session for energy generation, expanding and promoting energy conservation and sustainability should be a policy priority starting this February to create a more complete and comprehensive clean energy plan for Minnesota.

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