Minnesota, German cities team up to get smart on climate and energy

Marcus Muller, Sebastian Witte and Hans Jurgen Badziura.
From left, Marcus Muller, Sebastian Witte and Hans Jurgen Badziura pose for a portrait on Sunday in Minneapolis. The three are part of a delegation of city leaders and other climate and sustainability experts from Germany visiting Minnesota this week.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Projects in six Minnesota cities are on display this week as more than a dozen German climate and energy leaders visit the state. Their visit is part of multiyear collaborations between Minnesota cities and their German counterparts to develop responses to climate change — from expanding solar energy to making buildings more energy efficient.

The western German city of Arnsberg was already doing something pretty cool when it paired up with Warren, Minn., three years ago as part of the Climate-Smart Municipalities program. It was using planes equipped with thermal imaging cameras to see which buildings were losing the most energy.

But on an early visit to Warren in northwestern Minnesota, that project evolved. The visitors from Arnsberg flew from Minneapolis to Thief River Falls, Minn., and one of their hosts, former state Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, pointed out a drone program housed at the local airport.

"Sen. Stumpf said, 'Hey, do you have a couple of minutes? Let's go look at this drone program; it's really cool,'" recalled Shannon Mortenson, Warren's city administrator. The drones, run by Northland Community and Technical College, sparked a new idea for Warren and Arnsberg, she said.

"We all looked at each other and said, 'We can each do this in our communities,'" she said.

Now, both cities are using drones to find inefficient buildings. That project is among all sorts of efforts happening in 12 cities in Minnesota and Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia state: Saerbeck and Morris, Duluth and Siegen, Rochester and Munster, White Bear Lake and Ludenscheid, Elk River and Iserlohn, and Warren and Arnsberg.

Other initiatives include solar installations, energy-efficient lighting and electric vehicle infrastructure. The goal is to find projects that both save cities money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Sabine Engel, who directs the program through the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.

"The energy transition begins in our heads — How we think about things. How we frame things," she said.

A native of Germany, Engel said the idea for the exchange dates back to 2011. Then-Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon asked Engel if there was a way to grow existing relationships into a partnership that helps push both Minnesota and Germany forward on energy policy.

Besides evidence of progress on the ground, Engel said the program is also showing what it takes for cities to address climate change.

"Not every city is a leader when it comes to climate and energy. So, what is the secret sauce?" she asked. "It's the people dimension. The cities that are really doing well spend what looks like, on the face of it, an inordinate amount of time talking and gathering people together."

Engel said Saerbeck and Morris are good examples because they've invited everyone — even naysayers who think renewable energy is too expensive — to weigh in on the communities' energy future. And she's curious what the two newest cities in the program — White Bear Lake and Ludenscheid — will come up with.

Hans Badziura leads Ludenscheid's efforts and so far has been inspired by what he sees happening in Minnesota.

"I recognize that there is something on the way here, and that is what is very impressing to me — that the Minnesotans are very serious," he said.

Both Germany and Minnesota have shown leadership on climate and energy issues, but they also have a ways to go when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in both places, coal still accounts for more than a third of electricity production.

Birds fly past a smoking chimney in Ludwigshafen, Germany.
Birds fly past a smoking chimney in Ludwigshafen, Germany, in December 2018.
Michael Probst | AP 2018

If you take climate change seriously, said Marcus Muller, who also works on sustainability in Ludenscheid, "you have to look beyond your borders."

Ludenscheid and White Bear Lake are looking to get their schools involved in the new partnership. And this week, "we really want to walk away with a project or two that we can be partnering on throughout the year," said Ellen Hiniker, White Bear Lake's city manager.

On Wednesday, Rochester and Munster will sign a memorandum of cooperation, Engel said.

"It creates a dimension of accountability," she said. "It allows people to move continuously forward. Otherwise there are always changes in terms of leadership and personnel."

Arnsberg and Warren are looking forward to working together for at least two more years, Mortenson said. The drone project led Marshall County, Minn., to replace inefficient windows at the courthouse. It's also helping homeowners, said Sebastian Witte, Arnsberg's project manager for climate action and sustainable development.

"That's very important because people care about their own houses and reducing energy costs," he said.

Mortenson said the two cities are also sharing ways to make rivers a destination for outdoor recreation and leisure to attract business and tourism. In the past, she says, city officials considered the river little more than a flooding threat. This week, the Warren hosts will take the visitors from Arnsberg kayaking on the Snake River.

"It has been life-changing," Mortenson said of the exchange. "You approach every project with, is it resilient? Is it sustainable? It has made us look at our environment around us differently."