In striving to reach the city of Duluth's goal of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, Duluth's energy coordinator Alex Jackson believes there's value in having the city's energy consumption public.

"If we have a building that uses a lot of energy, we should have to answer to that," Jackson said. "We're spending taxpayer money and using these limited resources. We need to do it responsibly and everyone should know how we're doing it and what we're doing to do it more efficiently and effectively."

As a participant in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's statewide GreenStep Cities program, Duluth is encouraged to share its energy data in a state database called B3 Benchmarking. Involvement in the program also encourages Duluth to stay on track to reach its energy goals as well as others related to sustainability.

From left: mayor of Grand Marias Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux, Northeast CERT coordinator Colby Abazs and City of Duluth energy coordinator Alex Jackson talk during a break in presentations about GreenStep Cities Wednesday  at Minnesota Pollution Control. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
From left: mayor of Grand Marias Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux, Northeast CERT coordinator Colby Abazs and City of Duluth energy coordinator Alex Jackson talk during a break in presentations about GreenStep Cities Wednesday at Minnesota Pollution Control. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

In 2014, Duluth became involved in GreenStep Cities, which is a voluntary five-step challenge to help cities achieve sustainability goals. The program lists 29 "best practices" that fall under five broad groups: buildings and lighting; land use; transportation; environmental management; and resilient economic and community development.

Under each of the 29 best practices are a list of specific action options totaling approximately 175 actions, one of which is logging the cities' energy data.

Jackson's hopeful the city can accomplish its goal of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.

"It's not political talk," Jackson said. "There is an avenue to achieve that goal if we don't spend money foolishly or save the wrong money and if we have the financial resources to do it.

Mayor Emily Larson cited a need to look at the city's practices and investments to ensure financial sustainability and equity, whether that's through transitioning away from fossil fuel or increasing solar capacity.

She said participating in GreenStep is a way for the city to share its sustainability story and that the program aligns with the city's values, especially as demand grows among the public for more conversations surrounding sustainability.

"It's been so clear the community has been wanting to more deeply engage with us on the conversation," Larson said.

Mayor Emily Larson talks about the importance of GreenStep Cities and the role the program plays in Duluth Wednesday at Minnesota Pollution Control. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Mayor Emily Larson talks about the importance of GreenStep Cities and the role the program plays in Duluth Wednesday at Minnesota Pollution Control. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

In 2018, the city adopted and updated its comprehensive land-use plan. The updated plan, also known as Imagine Duluth 2035, includes a specific area of focus on energy and conservation. Five broad energy-related policies were developed, including providing incentives for building owners to increase energy efficiency in their buildings and for developers to incorporate renewable energy sources. GreenStep awarded the city one out of three stars for that action classified under "comprehensive, climate and energy plans."

Regardless of participation in GreenStep, Jackson said the city still would have completed many of the same actions listed through the program. What makes participation in the program unique, he said, is its ability to provide connections and a look at what other cities are doing. Each participating city has a webpage that lists the completed, pending and uncompleted action items.

The action items that are the most difficult to achieve are often the most financially intensive.

"It frequently isn't an overwhelming amount of money, but I think when a city has different areas ... that are all competing for a set amount of money, how every penny gets parceled out can be a challenge sometimes," Jackson said.

One example of a cost-intensive project is improving energy efficiency in older buildings like City Hall, which Jackson said is "medium-term goal" the city hopes to accomplish in 10 years.

Duluth completed Step 3 of the program and will receive recognition for doing so in June. The city is also on its way to complete Step 4 by May. To pass Step 1, cities must pass a resolution committing to work on sustainability.

During Step 2 cities can claim credit for actions completed in the past as well as new actions while Step 3 requires cities to claim twice as many actions. Step 4 asks cities to report numbers to show how their efforts have paid off. During Step 5 cities are challenged to show improvements in their numbers.

Phillip Muessig, the GreenStep program coordinator with MPCA, said in the decade that the program has existed cities have become more overt about incorporating sustainability into their actions, whether that's through reducing energy use, hiring energy coordinators or penning plans with a greater emphasis on sustainability.

"In 10 years, there's just been a distinct acceleration and GreenStep can't take all the credit for that," Muessig said. "Cities are thinking in terms of sustainability as opposed to just environmentalism. GreenStep in 10 years has accomplished our overt stated vision, which was to make sustainability the norm in Minnesota cities."

Since GreenStep launched in 2010, 133 cities have joined, 4,210 actions have been completed and more than $8 million has been saved per year on energy costs, according to the MPCA. Between 2007 and 2017, 34 cities reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 25% collectively and 25 cities have climate goals.

Muessig said the most successful cities in the programs work collaboratively with more than just city staff. Champions within the community who engage with government are crucial, whether those are individuals or entities and groups in a city.

When looking at Duluth's completed actions, Muessig said the city exercises the sort of longer-term thinking and commitment to research that all cities need to put into practice. He cited a few of the city's accomplishments as standouts, including past work on sewer maintenance to prevent overflows and its "comprehensive" unified development code. He said Minnesota doesn't have many.

"I think they are a really good way to shape better development that works for a city," Muessig said of unified code developments.

Duluth's land use and development regulations require that residential development with three units or more as well as nonresidential developments with a floor area of 10,000 square feet or more comply with a minimum standard of sustainability provisions.

The city offers 27 optional provisions, each assigned a certain number of points. Options for developers include generating 15% or more electricity using alternative energy sources, installing a green vegetated roof and providing a minimum of one on-site composting station for every 25 units.

The biggest challenge city's tend to face is re-examining city policies and ordinances and making them bolder, Muessig said. Rarely do cities adopt sustainability policies or require higher energy efficiency in developing buildings, but Duluth is an exception to that norm as the unified development code and land-use plan both fall under that category.

While applauding progress around the state, Muessig also referenced increasing climate impacts as a reason why cities need be doing more. Acting now, he said, will save cities money down the road.

"We just need to see more actions and faster in that very broad area: energy supply, storm water, building energy efficiency and durability," Muessig said.

Other participants in the program include Hermantown, Ely, Gilbert, Mountain Iron, Chisholm, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Moose Lake, Barnum Two Harbors, Silver Bay and Grand Marais.

This article was updated Jan. 13 to correct an error in the first paragraph about the reduction in greenhouse gases.