The city of Duluth soon may have a new ally in the battle to slash its greenhouse gas emissions.

The Duluth City Council will consider an ordinance on March 11 that would lead to the formation of an energy plan commission tasked with keeping the city on track to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide it generates by 80 percent by 2050.

Mayor Emily Larson announced that ambitious goal in her State of the City address a couple of years ago. But she acknowledged the task will transcend her tenure.

“If there is a change of administration, you could lose this emphasis,” said Larson, adding that she doesn’t want to see the effort wane, regardless of who succeeds her as mayor.

“So, this is really building into the ethic and value of the city organization that we are going to have this mission,” she said.

The proposed commission would help guide the effort to shrink the city’s carbon footprint and would put together an annual report to track its progress.

“If a future mayor or council no longer wants to have this commission, they would need to decommission it, which I think would be making a significant statement outside of the current commitment we have,” Larson said.

She suggested the political risks of walking away from the stated goal could be considerable, particularly as the evidence of global warming mounts.

“You’d be dismantling our commitment to climate and dismantling our commitment to energy conservation,” Larson said.

Progress made

For her part, Larson pledged to cut the city of Duluth’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent during her first term, which ends in 2020. Larson has not yet announced whether she will seek a second term.

Alex Jackson, energy coordinator for the city of Duluth, said Larson is well on track to keep her promise. He said the biggest single stride the city has made toward reducing its carbon footprint under Larson’s leadership was a steam plant conversion that allowed the facility to cut its consumption of coal. That fuel has been largely supplanted by natural gas for most of the year, a move that trimmed Duluth’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent.

The steam plant now is seeking permits to replace the coal it still burns in cold-weather months with a new biofuel. If that conversion proves successful, Jackson said the facility could eliminate its use of coal, although it would continue to supplement its operations with natural gas.

“It would take us from being 100 percent reliant on fossil fuels and cuts us to 50 percent reliant on fossil fuels for the district heating system essentially in the course of 1½  to 2 years,” he said.

Jackson pointed to additional steps the city has taken to reduce its energy use, including the replacement of old lighting with more efficient LED fixtures, installing solar panels and charging stations at a parking facility in Canal Park and efforts to evaluate and improve the building envelopes of city-owned structures.

Duluth also has invested in a community solar garden - a move that was expected to save $80,000, but Jackson said it actually has cut $90,000 from the city’s electric bills since 2018.

More to do

Additional projects are on the horizon for Duluth. One of the largest involves the replacement of steam pipes that currently run below Superior Street with a more efficient closed-loop hot water heating system to serve the downtown corridor. Jackson said that project could cut emissions from the district heating facility by another 20 percent.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that so much of the city’s attention has been focused on the steam plant, since it accounted for 75 percent of Duluth’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, the last year the city underwent a comprehensive analysis. That same year will be used as a baseline against which Duluth will measure future progress toward its goal.

Larson also said she aims to target the water system, which consumes more electricity than any other city infrastructure.

“It takes an enormous amount of energy to bring water all the way up the hill and to pump it everywhere it needs to go. That is our single-largest use of energy, and there are certain mechanics that need to be in place for those pumps to work, because we’re a very hilly city,” she said.

A German graduate engineering student conducted an analysis of the city’s waterworks in 2017 and put together a proposal for a hybrid energy system that could be used to operate the Lakewood water treatment center and pumphouse at the heart of Duluth’s system. That proposed system could operate with solar power and an advanced battery assist, along with a diesel backup generator.

The cost of such a setup could run from $5 million to $6 million, with an anticipated payback timeline of about 18 years. But Jackson said the city has put out a request for proposals to explore whether any entity would be interested in fronting the money for the system in return for a long-term contract with the city.

With such projects waiting in the wings, Larson expressed confidence Duluth will meet its goal.

“To be honest, 80 percent by 2050, that’s pretty conservative. I actually believe we will get there before 2050,” she said.

For now, the initiative is focused solely on the city’s carbon footprint, but Larson said the effort could expand.

“Ideally I would love to see that grow into a community commitment. But I also know that we, as a city, can get our house in order and move forward and achieve these goals,” she said.

“It’s easier to start a conversation when you can say, ‘We’ve done it. We’ve got this plan, and we’re on the way. We can talk with you about how to achieve something similar,’” she said.

Larson said she looks forward to making appointments to the proposed seven-member energy plan commission - a group of volunteers that the city will turn to for guidance.

“We want people who can sit down, look at our goals, help us achieve them, map out how far we’re getting and where do we need to go,” she said.