Energy-use data could help Minnesota cities protect the environment

Mass transit
Commuters board Metro Transit express buses at the Park-and-Ride site in Woodbury, Minn., in a 2013 file photo.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News 2013

Minnesota cities are using information to help reduce their impact on the environment.

After signing up for a voluntary state-run program that helps them identify ways to be greener by recycling a wider variety of plastics, replacing old light bulbs with energy efficient LEDs and other measures, some cities have joined a program that helps track data — from water and energy use to greenhouse gas emissions.

The Regional Indicators Initiative aims to help cities figure out which environmental measures work.

Twenty-two cities representing a quarter of Minnesota's population are turning to data through the initiative, a project funded by the state and the Urban Land Institute of Minnesota.

"It says, 'All right, we have these best practices, now are they actually making a difference in your community, in your neighborhood?'" Falcon Heights Mayor Peter Lindstrom said. "Can we measure?"

The Twin Cities suburb of 5,000 installed solar panels on city hall and signed up for a discount program that makes solar panels more affordable for homeowners. Lindstrom said the city also is proud of its community garden and a new biking and walking path along Fairview Avenue.

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"I think the worst thing any city can do is greenwashing — to say you're making a difference but then not really making a difference at all," he said. "So through the Regional Indicators Initiative, it's going to tell us whether our programs are making a difference."

The project has data from 2008 onward that include vehicle miles traveled, waste generation, water use, and the amount of electricity, natural gas and other fuel being used by everyone within city limits. The cities that signed up had to agree to make the data public, said Rick Carter, a Minneapolis architect who has been managing the project.

"And that kind of goes towards the idea that you can't manage what you don't measure," Carter said. "If somebody's not looking at the data, it doesn't matter that you have it. And if everybody's looking at the data, it's better."

Carter said that could lead to a little friendly competition among cities. Studies have shown that such information can work for homeowners. If their electricity bill shows how they're doing in comparison to their neighbors, it will motivate them to use a little less next month.

"You naturally use less because we're all a little bit naturally competitive and because you know," Carter said. "The question of whether that scales up to a city remains to be seen."

But Minnesotans likely won't see an all-out greenhouse gas war between cities because their emissions are highly dependent on what kinds of activities are going on within their borders. Some cities have factories and skyscrapers. Others are mostly residential. Some are dense, and others still have farmland.

Carissa Schively Slotterback, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School who studies topics like sustainable development and land use planning, said city-to-city comparisons are a real challenge.

"You really have to understand the individual community context — what's going on there, what are the generators of greenhouse gas impacts and then what are the tools to actually affect the kinds of activities and generators that are going on there," she said.

Schively Slotterback said cities have proven to be a good place to tackle the greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change because that's where most people live and work. In a lot of cases, saving energy means saving money.

Cities will need several years of data to decide what new policies or actions will help them reach the next level of being green.

But their participation in such efforts is crucial, said Philipp Muessig, co-director of the GreenStep Cities program for the the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The broader effort encourages cities to voluntarily reduce their impact on the environment.

"For the long-term deeper reductions we need to make in greenhouse gases, we have to have cities as partners," he said. "Helping cities take deeper actions, we're sort of at the beginning of doing this."