Leaders in Morris, Minn., Create a Model for Rural Resilience — Episode 150 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 16 Feb 2022 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

A group in Morris, Minnesota — a city of 5,000 — has put together the Morris Model: a partnership and strategic plan to model how rural communities can shine in areas like clean energy and community resilience.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Troy Goodnough, Sustainability Director with the University of Minnesota Morris, and Blaine Hill, Morris City Manager. Goodnough and Hill were heavily involved in the Morris Model as it came together. They explain what it means to be a model community, how local and international partnerships have influenced their work, and what the future may look like for Morris.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Troy Goodnough: Every community can be a model community because every community has assets and people who are amongst those people – and you know who you are – who want to see change happen, and believe that change is possible. And I think that’s what happened in Morris. The Morris Model is we’ve got a group of people together. We define some shared purpose, right? We started with some of the things we, we could agree on, like energy conservation or wanting to put more clean energy in our community, or preparing for some of the challenges coming with our climate.
John Farrell: Inspired by a German community that produces 400% of its own energy needs, people in the small town of Morris, Minnesota thought they could similarly pursue local economic sustainability through clean energy. In November 2021, I was joined by Troy Goodnough, Sustainability Director with the University of Minnesota Morris and Blaine Hill, Morris City Manager to talk about the “Morris Model,” a collaborative project of this West-Central Minnesota city, county, university, and its residents and businesses to meet ambitious clean energy and sustainability goals. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.

Troy and Blaine, welcome to Local Energy Rules.

Blaine Hill: Thank you. Nice to be here.
John Farrell: Yeah, I’m so glad to have you. And I’m so glad that Troy reached out in order to mention what you’ve been working on, because I’m really interested in hearing more. I think it’s really inspiring to hear about all the different parties that you brought together. I was hoping you start by explaining how the Morris Model was developed. Like what inspired you to try to bring, bring together all these members of the community? What were you looking to accomplish or, or was there another community, another place that gave you inspiration for this work?
Troy Goodnough: You bet. Maybe I could just jump in quick with, you know, we’ve been at this Morris Model work for over eight years. And so the Morris campus, the University of Minnesota Morris and the city have been longtime partners. And so Blaine, as our city manager, has just been really great over many, many years with connecting with the campus and connecting students to campus work over many years. So we’ve, for a long time, we’ve worked on things like Green Step Cities or exploring other projects in the community. And so a lot of the, I would say the beginnings, the very early beginnings. And at some point it becomes even less clear because you’ve just been at it for a long time. But some of the early beginnings I think goes all the way back to 2013 and 2014, where a couple things were going on all at once.

One was, there were some very early work around connecting the U.S. community with German communities, which Blaine can say more about, but there was also some work in our community where we started to frame up this idea of the Morris Model, which was a partnership between the city and the campus to think about shared sustainability aspirations, especially around energy conservation, clean energy, community resilience, cultural exchange, and celebration. So we have these kind of pillars Blaine was exploring a bunch of conservation and LED lighting projects, which you could say a lot more about. And so we started using this framing of the Morris Model of wanting to be, you know, basically we already felt like Morris was a model community – we’re out in west central Minnesota. You know, there’s a little bump on the very Western edge of the state. That’s where Morris is at.

And, and so we, we viewed Morris already as a model destination – ag and energy tourism destination, but we also knew that we wanted to be more of a model. And so we wanted to do more. And I would, I would just mention that the cultural exchange piece is one way of referencing our German partnership, but also the community resilience pillar really related to a lot of climate adaptation work we were doing at the time. So we were one of the first communities to do a rural climate dialogue. We worked on some extreme weather action planning stuff. And so all of this was swirling around back in 2013, 2014 when we started getting going.

Blaine Hill: Yeah. And I would just jump in and say, you know, the university was kind of the impetus for us getting involved. The university of Minnesota was working with the legislature and key leaders at the state level connecting with Germany. And the original person I worked with was Lowell Rasmussen, who was the vice chancellor of finance and facilities, I believe, at the university at the time. And, he really jumped in feet first, started working on stuff at the university. And then all of a sudden there was this thought about, well, can we tie cities in? And Morris is right here. I actually grew up in Morris and I’m a graduate from the University of Minnesota Morris. And we said, yeah, sure, we’re very interested. And then they partnered us. We were the first city in Minnesota to be partnered with the German communities, Saerbeck Germany.

And as Troy was saying, once we made those connections, we just started looking at all the different things that we could do. And then the Morris Model really was the organization that tied us together to start working on it. And then eventually, we passed a sustainability strategic plan that really said, instead of just working on stuff, let’s figure out what our goals are and then we can continue to work on stuff. So it started out as kind of a university thing. And then everybody just started jumping in and then the Morris Model is the organization that of keeps it all together and working together.

Troy Goodnough: So a lot of people still like, you know, when people are like, what is the Morris Model? Right? So the Morris Model is a community partnership that includes the city, the campus, the county, the local school district, the hospital, and other partners to pursue our shared sustainability aspirations. That’s what it is. And it represents both an aspiration to the more of a model community, but also an acknowledgement that we are already a model community. So hopefully when people hear the Morris Model and we’ve got a great website morrismodel.org, people can check out and, and read more about our goals. But when Blaine mentioned the strategic plan prior to that, we were really inspired by our friends in Germany. And they very, were very insistent, you know, find a couple partners and start doing projects. And that’s what we started doing all the way back many, many years ago, you know, 2015 is starting to, to tackle projects. And then in 2018 we developed this more formal plan that Blaine mentioned.
John Farrell: I think it would be really interesting to hear about – So I, you could see on the Morris Model website, the strategic plan that was developed, what I kind of liked as well as that it included some of the context for the retreat that you did in order to bring people together. Can you talk a little bit about what happened, like who was coming to that and joining that conversation and then maybe just give some high level overview of some of the goals that came out of it?
Blaine Hill: Yeah, well, we tried to invite everybody, so it was very interesting and actually it was, the whole retreat was kind of a follow on to what Dr. Sabine Engle over at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment does, she brings people together in environments where they can sit down and they can talk and they can try to figure out what to do. And so then we actually created our own where we went away for a couple days up to Camp Ripley and hung out. And we had everybody there. We had people from the government organizations, the school, we had people from town. We had people from our power company Otter Tail Power and everybody got into a room and it was facilitated by a couple very, very good facilitators that worked us through all the different things we’re thinking about.

And, and the end product. If you look at the cover page and see all the people that were there to me, it was just very impressive that we had all those people there. And so the end result of that goal setting was something that was very meaningful. It wasn’t a small group of people that got together that are environmentalists, that wanna see all the stuff happen. Everybody was at the table. And then we came up with some very big goals. And actually I kinda laughed because one of the goals that we threw out, Otter Tail Power’s sitting at the table making goals. And one of our goals is to produce 80% of the power that we use locally. And that is one of our goals. And we can do it. We really can, because we have, we have resources that we can farm, as we say, like the sun and the wind and we can utilize ’em and that’s actually started.

But one of the ones that I, I laugh at is our goal by 2025 is to not landfill garbage. And people just looked, looked and said, what, you’re never gonna be able to do that. Well, that’s the easiest goal because the largest portion of our garbage is organic. And, and the follow on to that whole process is now our county has a grant to start the organic collection process. There’s an intern. We, we actually are gonna be meeting this afternoon with the Green Corps member that the city got to work on organics, Pope Douglas, solid waste management has now a site that is gonna be an organic collection site. So we have the capability of… we, we knew how to do it because Saerbeck Germany does it. We, we know how to do it. We gotta figure out how to get it. And we know where to bring it. And in the end, if we can make all that stuff happen, then we don’t have to truck any garbage to a landfill, cuz it it’ll work, you know, and we have seen it.

And then obviously reducing energy is, is a big one for us, the amount of energy we use and then education, you know, we’re sitting here talking to you because that’s part of the Morris Model’s goal is to share the information that we learn with others so that they can do it. So education is a very big part of what we do. You, and I don’t know, I might have missed something in there, Troy.

Troy Goodnough: I would just say that coming out of that meeting, we really had those three big goals about, you know, producing 80% of the energy that we use in the county and consuming in county in the county, you know, basically reducing energy consumption by 30% and stopping landfill. And so we’ve been targeting, we’ve been working on all those goals. Then I would just say that one of the earliest projects that Blaine really led on was working on some LED work across the community. So that energy conservation piece, nothing is easy, right? So that’s, that’s the other thing I feel like it’s been a journey over the last eight, 10 years. And so none of these projects has been easy, but, but even though you see if you go around our entire community now there’s, there’s LED lighting everywhere.
John Farrell: One of the things I thought was really interesting was how you mentioned your Otter Tail Power, the investor utility that serves Morris, was at the convening that you had. And you have this goal of 80% local energy. Now for folks who aren’t familiar with it, investor-owned utilities are private companies, they have at least in Minnesota defined geographic territory that they serve. And usually they have some sort of resource plan that they adopt every few years to say, okay, here’s where we’re gonna be getting our energy from. Are they, I’m curious, you know, there weren’t specifically mentioned in some of the first a hundred actions that was in that strategic plan document, but I’m curious like how they’ve been involved in this process, knowing, like you said, Blaine, that you can farm the wind and the sun in your community to provide electricity. Are they trying to do something to help? Are they offering to build power production in the community? What’s that relationship like? And how is that working?
Blaine Hill: Well, one of the things I would share with you is that when we started this whole process going way back, and Troy has heard me say this before, if I would’ve walked into a power company 10 years ago and told them coal fired electric power is not gonna be around in the future. They would’ve grabbed me by the back of the collar and they would’ve sent me out the door. Yet Otter Tail has shut down not one but two coal fired power plants. And when you’re sitting, when you’re sitting in – I remember being in a board meeting, cuz we had the opportunity to meet some really special people. And we actually went to a huge meeting at Otter Tail Power where they had the board there and they had all their managers and everybody was there. And, and there’s a gentleman named Gerard Reed. I think I got the name right? Who is, is, I mean he left Morris after making a presentation cuz he had to go back to Europe to, as he is meeting with the board, the board for Exxon in, in Europe. Um, but he told him what the future of electric power was gonna be. And you could just see the looks on all their faces, like who is this idiot, you know, telling us what’s gonna happen with it’s here, it’s working and all that, that kind of stuff.

And, and so realistically the one thing I did not say is I said 80% of the power that we use would be generated here. I didn’t say we, we would own it just that it’s generated here. And so now Otter Tail Power is a partner in the, the solar projects that we’ve done on four of our buildings, cuz they’re providing incentives for us to put up solar and they know that and understand it. So we’re actually producing power that they’re gonna be buying back, but the world has changed so much. The same thing happened with electric vehicles – It’s never gonna happen. Nobody’s ever gonna buy electric pickup truck. It’ll never happen. And how many Ford electric pickup trucks have been ordered so far? Yeah, it’s the world has changed completely, you know?

And so we were at the beginning of it and we brought ’em along. And so then I, I mean the last thing I would just mention is that they came to Morris as a board to meet and have a retreat. It, because they were interested in what we thought and what we were doing here. And so that’s pretty powerful that they they’re watching us to find out what we know out here because, and the whole reason we know this stuff is cuz we are part of this organization with the University that is tied into the German government and, and all the bigger players really in, in some of the, the energy and sustainability worlds.

John Farrell: Is there more, I’m just curious because I’ve interviewed a lot of different cities that have set up a hundred percent renewable electricity goals often by 2030, a similar timeframe. They’ve really struggled cuz I, I feel like they haven’t had the utility as a partner a lot of times, although there’s been some interesting things. I remember I did an interview with the mayor of Milwaukie, Oregon, which is just outside of Portland and the utility there, I think is Portland General Electric talked to them about doing kind of a community choice program where they were gonna let, they were gonna allow the city to decide sort of the default electricity supply for most of the city’s customers. And so the city could choose it to be a hundred percent renewable and then people could opt out of that if they wanted, but that would be, they would, it would be a model where the utility could provide that kind of power. Is there, do you have anything like that in the pipeline in terms of either energy projects that Otter Tail is planning to build beyond the solar projects on the municipal buildings or sort of changing how the people in the community buy their electricity?
Troy Goodnough: I don’t think right now we have any specific projects with our utility about building or, or them building any particular project in our community yet. I think a lot of what, what has happened over the last couple years is we’ve partnered very closely with Otter Tail in the ways that Blaine was describing, right. We’ve really benefited from the POP program. So that has provided funds for us to help basically draw down some of the cost of these solar installations across the community. We’ve also, our Morris Model has partnered with Solar United Neighbors program. And so basically 2020, 2021 was the summer, the summers of solar. So we had multiple installations going up across our community, on residential homes as well. And so that’s also a part of it. We’ve also seen some really other interesting projects happening just in the region.

So there’s a lot to say about what is happening in energy and in Morris and what main street looks like and what this future looks like. There’s just a lot to unpack about what these energy changes mean for the future of rural communities and how we do those changes in a really good way. For example, we have, we do have an ethanol plant in town. We, we just have a, a big amount of investment come into the community, working with the, the local dairy operations that these giant dairies out in, in west central Minnesota and Morris. And so, you know, basically a, an entrepreneurial company came in to basically make renewable natural gas and push that into the pipeline. So these are also ways that that energy is being made in Stevens County and in Morris, how all of this fits together is part of what our Morris Model is doing.

And, and I should just say too, we’ve been, we’ve referenced it a couple times, but this community that our sister city of Morris is Saerbeck Germany. And they’re one of the top clean energy communities in Germany. They are the winner of the European energy award. I think multiple times, they produce over 400% of the energy that their community needs. They’re also rural a town of about 7,000 and they’ve done so much with, with, with local investment. And so I think part of this exchange be with our, with our German colleagues – and Blaine could say a lot more about this too,  probably – is we’ve been learning about the differences between our two cultures. We’ve been learning a lot more about the differences between our policies and legal frameworks and trying to basically push along these edges of what’s possible, right? To see what, what could we, what could we do in similar ways here, but, but our German friend and Saerbeck, you know, have really built out a community energy framework and that’s, we’ve, you know, Blaine all your talks about, I appreciate how you, you say sometimes you see the future when we go to Saerbeck or when we travel to Germany, Blaine. And I feel like, you know, a part of our hope is that when people travel to Morris, they are also gonna catch a little bit of a glimpse of the future.

Blaine Hill: Yeah. And, you know, with the electric regulation, it’s very difficult. And then the service territories are very exact, so Otter Tail Power serves us here. But as soon as you go outside the city limits, then there’s rural electrics that are here. And if you go just a little bit farther to the east of us here, now you’re in Xcel Energy territory. And so now you’re seeing solar farms that are starting to pop up and we probably can’t do one right here, yet. Some things have to change with regulations and stuff like that. And then one of the interesting things that happens, we’re a rural farming community, farming county. And there’s this discussion about, you know, the value of farmland and not putting solar panels on it and stuff like that. Yet at the same time, you know, we kind of snicker a little bit. It’s like the, the number of solar systems that we would need to be able to meet our energy needs here. There’s plenty of farm law land to go around and, and it actually gets put on marginal farmland. So realistically we would love to do a bigger solar system at our water treatment plant, at our sewer plant. Those are gonna be the next couple steps for us. We’d like to do a community solar system, but I think Otter Tail Power is gonna want to own one because they’re in the business of making energy and selling it. And if we can get ’em to do that here, that’s gonna be good for us. It’s gonna be good for them. And so that’s the next follow on step for us is try to figure out how.

That some of the rurals are a little bit farther behind as far as buying into the whole issue of, you know, solar and wind. We kind of joke out here that, you know, people go, well, what if the wind doesn’t blow? And it’s like, the wind blows all the time out here. You know, the university has two big wind turbines and they know and understand what happens. Or what happens if the sun doesn’t, you know, the sun’s not out well, that’s we put up our solar systems not just to make power, but we put ’em up as a tool to learn about how they work. You know, the first thing I did as a city manager was after the first snowfall, I went and looked at the solar panels to see if snow was sitting on ’em and it wasn’t. Things like that. But, uh, I don’t know that that’s gonna be the harder goal to do, cuz of the regulation is basically what I’m trying to say.

Troy Goodnough: And that is my favorite project is the solar at the liquor store. So now when I go and get my beer and know that it’s cooled by the sun, that’s just, that’s just kinda an awesome deal. I would also say just a couple of, building off a couple things that Blaine said is, you know, Otter Tail has had this Tailwinds program for years for people to buy into clean energy, which is what, you know, my family does. It will be interesting to see how that evolves against this framework, right? So obviously it’s weird at this point now to be paying [more] for what is the cheapest energy in the upper Midwest, which is wind energy. So it’ll be interesting to see how those programs evolve. I should also just say too, that I’m, I’m sitting here at the Morris campus, the University of Minnesota Morris campus, where right now our campus is getting all of its energy from clean energy in this moment. Right?

So literally like right now, today, all of the energy at this moment is coming from renewable. So if you were to look at the demand of where, where we’re drawing power, it’s zero, we’re not drawing any power from, you know, so we’re about a thousand kilowatt campus about a, about a one megawatt campus. And all of that power basically is coming to us from wind and solar. And so, you know, what that means is, is on an annual basis, uh, about 60% or more of our energy comes from renewable sources at the Morris campus. So already the, the UM Morris produces the most clean power of any campus in the entire United States. So that’s a point of pride and we have some really interesting projects bubbling up, including with Otter Tail where we’re gonna be exploring over the next couple years, potential energy storage. So, so Otter Tail and, uh, OETI and some other partners will be working together to explore energy storage. And that’s been something that, that I could say more about, but that’s an ongoing project that addresses what Blaine was saying earlier about, you know, we still hear some conversation. I mean, it, we are in a culturally conservative, rural place and there’s still a lot of questions about, well, it doesn’t – sun doesn’t shine all the time and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. So what are we gonna do about that?

Blaine Hill: We had a community conversation on Saturday with our sister city in Saerbeck, Germany, and the one of the most interesting things… Well, one the ninth grade girl that was there spoke English as, as well as anybody needs to speak English, but there’s a farmer there that had solar on his house and he had battery storage in the house to collect the excess solar that he made to use it later. And, and that’s one of the things that we’ve talked about is a follow on to what we’re doing is to try to figure out how to capture the excess, cuz you don’t need it for a month. You don’t need it for two weeks. You probably need it for a few hours until you get into the evening time and then you’re gonna use it then. So Saturday, you know, that was something that, that really struck me, that they’re actually using technology that we’re talking about trying to do. And at the same time, the bigger users, the university has got to be one of the biggest users in Morris, but the school system is a big user too. And now we’re working with the school to put a solar system at the school cuz they, they could offset a lot of their power with the solar system and they’re, they’re in the right spot to do it. You know? So there’s smaller projects even though that’s not really a small project, but uh, the bigger picture is to try to see some of these community solar systems put up.
Troy Goodnough: And there already is solar at the school, which was put up by the robotics team.
Blaine Hill: Yeah.
Troy Goodnough: And this was an exciting week in Morris too, because the two fully electric big old yellow school buses launched as well.
John Farrell: I was getting to ask you Troy, about the University of Minnesota Morris. One of the goals is actually now passed, which is to be carbon neutral by 2020. And you already mentioned the renewable energy, you know, is about 60% of the annual usage, but Morris has other ways of producing energy that are also not traditional fossil fuels, right? Can you talk a little bit more about how the campus in particular has had this focus? And I think as Blaine mentioned earlier, Lowell Rasmussen, I remember talking to him, gosh, almost 10 years ago about the efforts that were already being made.
Troy Goodnough: Yeah. So leadership always matters, right? And we’ve been, the Morris campuses had over a decade of really great leadership, both at our facilities management level, as well as our chancellorship level. And then obviously we’ve had students for more than a decade who’ve basically been saying, we gotta do something. You know, we’re, we’re a signatory to the second major climate commitment, which commits us to carbon neutrality and adaptation planning in our community. And so lots more could be said about that, but, but the nutshell is yeah, 2020 was an important year, right. We achieved carbon neutrality as a campus, and electricity in that year. And so carbon neutrality is, it’s a process. From a high vantage point, it’s not like you get to the mountaintop and you’re done, right. It takes continual effort to basically stay on that mountain. So it will continue to take work for us to basically maintain our carbon neutrality and electricity.

But we’ve also been partnering with firms like Evergreen Energy. We can, we were one of three that were part of a program that they run of it, that to do a carbon neutrality study, a climate action study. And so we were primarily working with Evergreen Energy, which is one of the lead district heating energy companies in Minnesota to basically explore what other options do we have for meeting our thermal load? So obviously a big elephant in the room is how do we not freeze to death in Minnesota? You know, we’re an extreme climate, both warm and cold. A lot of our energy usage is obviously in heating. And so we’re exploring options around that.

So just example of like, what’s bubbling up like this meeting this, this afternoon, literally I’m, we’re, we’re meeting with a, a geothermal firm that’s completed basically another study. So after the Evergreen report happened now, we’ve worked with Otter Tail Power and another company to basically do a geothermal study for the campus. We’ve been inspired by what Carlton did, right. You know, after 111 years, they cut the cord with natural gas this past year. And so the Morris campus is exploring the potential for geothermal on campus. We have a biomas gasification plant on campus, but the goal, right, I think we share and understand is the goal is to not burn things, you know, is to live off the sun. The goal is to live off the sun in real time. That is our goal. We know that that’s the goal. And so we’re trying to pursue projects that explore that. And, and so that means things like how can we get to next generation district heating at our campus using low quality thermal, you know, low quality hot water, so that that’s in progress right now.

John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we talk about the need for good data to measure progress, the 80/20 rule of effort and payback, and how everyone needs to rethink what they think they know about how fast clean energy will advance. You are listening to a Local Energy Rules interview with Troy Goodnough, Sustainability Director with the University of Minnesota Morris and Blaine Hill, Morris City Manager.

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John Farrell: I wanted to ask you at least about one of the other goals about the community reducing its energy use. I think you said it was a 30% energy use reduction goal. You mentioned the like big LED campaign. I have to say, I loved the photo on the front of the strategic plan with everybody holding a little LED bulb. That kind of like, it’s like you were already started like you and taking actions. How is that going? Is that another thing where you can partner with utility? Is that a thing where there’s specific things that the city or the county or others are able to do to really advance that? And how are you doing in terms of achieving that goal? Cause obviously it’s a very ambitious one.
Blaine Hill: Well, one of the, one of the hardest things for us, cuz we’re a small, small town, is to try to find the people that can collect data. So in a lot of cases, you know, we have to do things like we, we, we actually have a grant program that we got from the state of Minnesota, where we had somebody on board that was working on some of that data collection kind of information so that we can track what we’re actually doing. That’s the hardest part is to try to keep track of everything, especially now that that we’re getting into a situation where it’s gonna be very interesting to see how much energy we produce on our buildings, but the next step is how much energy do we actually use?

You know, the interesting part, Germans don’t get to use whatever they want. And, and so when we meet with Saerbeck Germany, the amount of energy a German household uses is probably a third of what American household uses, but energy is super cheap here. And so then people don’t really feel that pinch, although natural gas this winter is gonna be an eye opener for a lot of people that are gonna see their bills go up. But at the same time, they use a third of what we use, but they pay three times what we pay. And so we’re probably spending the same amount of money for energy when you look at it that way. But you know, just to convince Otter Tail Power. And we actually had to convince ’em to switch out all of our street lights in the city of Morris to LEDs, took a little bit of persuasion and then again, there’s rules and regulation. They can’t just go, literally couldn’t just go out and buy LED street lights without getting it approved by the public utilities commission and the state of Minnesota and then the pricing on it.

But, but that alone, the amount of energy that we wound up saving just lighting street lights. And then if you start factoring it down, all of the city buildings have been converted twice. You know, cuz initially we had the old fluorescent lights and then we converted them to the TA8s I think they were. And now we’re LED in all of our buildings. So we’ve seen a tremendous amount of energy reduction just in simple things that you can do like that. But the next step is to really, to try to focus on the businesses, the public.

The one thing, I said that before, but a lot of times when you’re looking at these issues, whether they’re energy or their waste, you know, we think of the entire community. But in some cases, if you focus on the big users, it makes it much easier to understand and to try to figure out how to get those reductions down, like organic waste. You don’t have to get it from every single household. If you can get it from the businesses and the institutions you’re gonna get most of it cuz that’s where it’s generated. So that’s kind of what we look at with energy reduction, but that’s kind of the point we’re at right now is how, how do we try all this stuff and then report it back so that everybody can see and understand what we’re trying to do. We said it in the beginning, when we first started, we just started jumping in and yeah, we’re gonna do LED lights. We’re gonna, you know, we have electric car chargers around in the back of city hall and we leased electric hybrid vehicles and stuff like that. Those are easy things to do. But then what does it all mean in the big picture as you start throwing it together and, and then you you’ll find out really quick that you gotta have your power provider at the table with you to help try to figure out some of these answers and they wanna see.

I mean, one of the, just really quick, one of the most interesting things I saw was sitting in a Otter Tail Power meeting. When a banker asked a question: why would you limit the amount of energy you’re providing to people when you’re selling energy? And the answer, because they control water heaters to limit peak usage, and the answer was the investment in peak power production is greater than what we want it to be. So the easiest thing for us to do is to limit the amount of power we sell. So they’re focusing their resources on what’s the most efficient and economical system to have in place. Well, most people don’t really understand that at their level yet or even businesses. But that’s what we’re trying to do is get people to understand what they’re using, how they’re using it and making those energy efficiency decisions.

John Farrell: I have to say, I just love the utility- controlled water heaters. It’s like if you’re storing thermal energy by letting people heat their water at night, when there’s lots of wind blowing, as you say out in your part of the country, and then restricting when people use it elsewhere. I think Great River Energy said they have something like a gigawatt or some absurd amount of energy that they can supply by shifting when people use those water heaters.
Blaine Hill: Yeah. It’s amazing the technology to do. And then how big that number is that they can just flip a switch and then all of a sudden they redirect energy.
Troy Goodnough: I Just wanted to say too, that, you know, Blaine was tenacious in trying to get that LED lighting on main street. And so that was the first step. And so he put a lot of work and we did, we worked with a, a private company at the time to basically try to imagine what a Morris Model energy conservation and clean energy firm would look like for the community. And so that, that was a big step. And so I think the, the point is once you demonstrate something and people can come and kick the tires, obviously it reduces the barriers for doing more stuff. And I just wanted to say too, to kind of, to your question is I think we’ve tried to really think about that 80 20 rule in our work. And so part of that Morris Model strategic plan was bringing together a lot of people from the community, from the, from the school, from the hospital, all from the county, from businesses and thinking about if, if we applied 20% of our effort really strategically, could we get that 80% savings and energy conservation, right? That energy consumption.

And so what we asked people to do is coming out of that strategic planning meeting was essentially to ratify the goals that they had established for themselves and think about those goals’ roles. So one of the things that we’ve been doing is we’ve, we’ve had university of Minnesota Morris student interns have worked a lot with the city, the school, the campus to basically do some of the measurement work that you’re talking about. And so we have more reporting work to put out into the public that shows what some of those gains have looked like as well as, so some of the challenges of just getting good metering data. And so we are trying to tackle all of those things at once. And students are playing the role in helping us to do some of that data collection as well and getting the right access to the right meters and the software to basically do those collections.

John Farrell: I’d love to just wrap up by asking each of you, like, what advice might you have for other communities, big cities or small cities trying to set out and to work toward ambitious goals like you’ve set through the Morris Model. What, what is it that helps you continue to have success and to make progress toward those goals?
Blaine Hill: Well, I think the big thing for me as a city manager, you know, cause this is my 31st year as an administrator is you gotta reach out and look for, uh, the information. And everybody’s busy. I’m busy, the county’s busy and stuff. And, and so I, I, I never like to reinvent the wheel. So we had the opportunity to reach out and find out this information from other places and then use it and then share it with other places. So probably the one thing I would tell anybody that’s listening is if you think what you’re doing now is what you’re gonna be doing in five years or 10 years, you’re not, you know, you’re gonna be doing something different. So why not try to figure out what that might be so that you can prepare yourself for the future. And, and I’ll just give you one example, electric vehicles, if you don’t think electric vehicles are coming, then you need to really start looking at the information because there are plants that are retooling right now to make the vehicles that they’re gonna be selling in the future. And that’s what are your options. You know, that Ford F150 pickup, they’re electric, they’re gonna be electric and people are gonna love them. So reach out and try to find the information. And we’re here to share it with people.
Troy Goodnough: I think the advice that I might give to other communities, is first just get a group together, right? That it’s okay, you get yourself permission. Every community can be a model because every community has assets and people who are amongst the, those people and, you know, want to see change happen, and believe that change is possible. And I think that’s what happened in Morris. Morris Model is we’ve got a group of people together. We define some shared purpose, right? We starting with some of the things we agree on like energy conservation or wanting to put more clean energy in our community or preparing for some of the challenges coming with our, our climate.

And so then the next step was just do projects. And that’s one thing we’ve really learned from our climate smart municipalities partners in our cities is this, they all say, do projects. You know, what projects are you doing? What projects are you doing? And that’s been that really sun in it’s just like, you know, grab some of the well hanging fruit and then start it. And, and that can even just be in relationship building and assessment and getting people together.

And then, you know, and the last thing I say is, you know, we need meet, basically meet our team to check in, in that relationship building. And sometimes, you know, we razz each other and it’s like, you know, what progress did we make this week? Well, not as much, sometimes we make more, but, but it helps us keep our friendships going. And we’re a diverse group. We don’t all agree. And we’re not all politically on the same spectrum either, but we share, we share big ideas and goals about wanting to create resilience and wealth and build local wealth and rural communities and to be a model rural community. And obviously every community is a community within a community. So it’s not of just rural obviously, but that’s, that’s what we’re trying to do here in Morris is to be our best model community.

John Farrell: Well, Blaine and Troy, thank you so much for joining me to talk about the Morris Model and how other cities can make their own model. I really appreciate it.
Troy Goodnough: Thank you.
Blaine Hill: Thanks for letting us join you.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules, discussing the Morris Model for bringing a community together to pursue ambitious, clean energy and sustainability goals with Troy Goodnough, sustainability director with University of Minnesota Morris and Blaine Hill, Morris city manager. On the show page, look for links to the Morris Model website and its strategic plan, as well as stories about the community’s progress. On the website of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you can find our interactive community power toolkit that shares action stories from cities across the country, as well as over 140 episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by Audio Engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

What Is the Morris Model?

The Morris Model is an organization formed around the relationship between University of Minnesota Morris and the broader Morris community. The University is a key player, but the organization also includes members of the Morris government, the Stevens County government, the local school district, and the hospital.

The Morris Model [started as] a partnership between the city and the campus to think about shared sustainability aspirations, especially around energy conservation, clean energy, community resilience, cultural exchange, and celebration.

— Troy Goodnough

At a facilitated retreat in 2018, community members, city government leaders, University of Minnesota staff, and Otter Tail Power representatives came up with the Morris Model Strategic Plan. They set local goals around energy use, waste, and community outreach.

The end result of that goal setting was something that was very meaningful. It wasn’t a small group of people that got together that are environmentalists, that wanna see all the stuff happen. Everybody was at the table.

— Blaine Hill

In the end, participants at the Climate Smart Municipality Strategic Planning Retreat settled on the “Big Three” goals:

  1. Produce 80% of the energy consumed in the county by 2030
  2. Reduce energy consumption 30% by 2030
  3. No land-filling of waste generated within the county by 2025

A Cross-Cultural Exchange of Ideas and Inspiration

Morris is one of Climate Smart Municipalities – a program connecting cities in Minnesota to sister cities in Germany. Morris was partnered with Saerbeck: a city of 7,000 that has installed enough renewable energy capacity to generate its own electricity use many times over, says Goodnough.

Morris’s relationship with Saerbeck has sparked the exchange of ideas, culture, and motivation to keep pursuing goals. Saerbeck has also showed Morris what is possible, as the city does not send waste to a landfill.

Warren, Minnesota — also a Climate Smart Municipality — was inspired by its German counterpart to take an inventory of local building head loss using drone thermal imaging.

The Morris Model drew inspiration from the Climate Smart Municipalities program, says Goodnough. 

A part of our hope is that when people travel to Morris, they are also gonna catch a little bit of a glimpse of the future.

– Troy Goodnough

A Model Community, Captive to a Monopoly Utility

Most Morris residents get their electricity from Otter Tail Power, the investor-owned electric utility serving the region. Since the city must either buy power from the utility or sell power to it, many of the Morris Model goals depend on what Otter Tail is willing to do.

Hill acknowledges that the utility’s interest is to sell more electricity, a position directly in conflict with the community’s goal to reduce energy consumption 30 percent by 2030. Even converting to LED street lights was made more complicated by the utility and state regulation, says Hill.

Learn about a Michigan community’s fight to install solar-powered lights on its streets.

However, Hill and Goodnough were pleasantly surprised with Otter Tail’s participation at the planning retreat.

They came to Morris as a board to meet and have a retreat because they were interested in what we thought and what we were doing here. And so that’s pretty powerful, that they they’re watching us to find out what we know out here

— Blaine Hill

Leaning on Existing Expertise

Morris holds regular community conversations with residents of Saerbeck. Hill describes several instances in which he has been inspired by energy projects in their sister city.

The community also relies on expertise and innovators at the University of Minnesota, including a key Morris Model partner, the UMN West Central Research Outreach Center. Additionally, UMN Morris students help with energy use data collection and analysis. Though it is one of the biggest energy users in Morris, says Goodnough, the University of Minnesota campus generates the most clean electricity per student of any campus in the United States.

Beyond electricity, Goodnough is in conversation with district heating companies about the potential for geothermal heat and cooling at UM Morris.

Every community can be a model because every community has assets and people who… want to see change happen, and believe that change is possible.

– Troy Goodnough

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 150th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: Clean Energy Resource Teams via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.