St. Paul sees city buildings as opportunity for quick wins on climate plan goals

St. Paul sees city buildings as opportunity for quick wins on climate plan goals

After a renovation project next year, the primates at St. Paul’s Como Park Zoo will reside in one of the first net-zero city-owned buildings.

Retrofitting several buildings at the zoo and the adjacent St. Paul Conservatory is part of a decarbonization initiative by the city to reach carbon neutrality for civic buildings by 2030.

That goal is one of many in St. Paul’s 2019 climate action and resilience plan, which outlines strategies and goals for carbon reduction in private and city-owned buildings and transportation, combined with the promotion of green infrastructure, water conservation and improved waste management.

The goal: “Achieve carbon neutrality in municipal building operations by 2030.”

St. Paul owns more than 150 buildings containing over 2.3 million square feet of space. The building portfolio includes police stations, community and recreation centers, libraries, public works and operations facilities. 

Buildings represent around 40% of carbon emissions nationally. Many cities, like St. Paul, have had programs for years dedicated to improving energy efficiency and adding solar to their buildings. As cities have begun to encourage, require and incentivize private building owners to become more efficient, civic leaders believe they need to serve as an example. St. Paul’s climate action plan suggests the city “inspire through municipal leadership.” 

According to Abby Finis, a consultant who has written several climate action plans for Minnesota cities, cities have great opportunities to reduce greenhouse gases from their buildings. 

“I think from an operations standpoint, cities are now in control of their facilities and their fleets, and there’s low-hanging fruit in both, but that’s not to say either is easy,” said Finis, who consults with St. Paul as well as Fresh Energy, publisher of the Energy News Network. “Building benchmarking, efficiency measures and decarbonization plans are good strategies.”

Should St. Paul decarbonize all city-owned buildings, it will have achieved perhaps the easiest part of its climate action plan, with city properties representing just 2% of emissions. By 2050, the plan calls for decarbonizing all buildings.

The strategy

St. Paul’s climate action plan provides a game plan of sorts for the city’s built infrastructure, with 11 recommendations guiding everything from cost analysis to building materials. In many ways, the city is simply building on its legacy of sustainability. 

St. Paul energy coordinator Cecilia Govrik said from 2009 to 2018, the city’s Green Revolving Loan Fund saw 629 projects completed, saving the city $1.6 million in energy costs. 

Employing efficiency measures in existing and new buildings has been St. Paul’s chief strategy for carbon reduction, but that will not get the city to net zero. St. Paul chief resilience officer Russ Stark said new and under-consctruction city buildings focus on combining efficiency with heating electrification to move the city away from natural gas.

An 25,000-square-foot community center under construction in the North End features ground-source heating and cooling combined with rooftop solar. A new fire station features an electric truck, Stark said. Lighting projects at recreation centers and the central library, along with a new HVAC at the police department’s headquarters, will also drive down emissions. 

A rendering of the North End community center Credit: Courtesy / City of St, Paul

Stark suggested efficiency projects may continue, but will likely focus on LEDs and building automation rather than insulation because of the cost. Meanwhile, a decarbonization strategy could involve installing geothermal heating and cooling in larger buildings and air source heat pumps in smaller ones.

Heat pump technology could be one approach to heating electrification. However, Stark wonders whether city buildings will still need backup heating sources for subzero temperature days, a requirement adding equipment and cost. 

Next year, St. Paul will take another step toward electrification by spending $4.4 million on installing a geothermal system in the zoo’s Primates Building. He said the zoo and conservatory account for roughly 20% of the city’s energy consumption, making them obvious targets for efficiency investments.

“We’re certainly really focused on the Como campus right now because so much of our building portfolio energy use is out there,” Stark said. “It’s a campus, so theoretically, there’s a way to tackle a lot in one in one spot. There’s the opportunity to use less energy and electrify those buildings.”

Como Park Zoo and Conservatory Director Michelle Furrer said the campus has an inefficient central plant built in the 1940s that produces steam heat for hot water. A feasibility study found geothermal heating and cooling systems to be a good option, with an approach of installing them in one building at a time. After completing the primate center, Furrer and the city hope to raise nearly $8 million for installing geothermal in the visitors center and the main zoo building.

Retrofitting all the zoo and conservatory’s 19 buildings will take years. Other efficiency projects involving LEDs and building management systems will help with decarbonization efforts.

“We have a unique opportunity at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory to not only talk the talk but walk the walk in what we can do,” Furrer said. “We get almost two million visitors a year. We have a great opportunity not only to do the work but also to showcase it.”

The results (so far)

Until last year, St. Paul had carbon emissions data for the entire city, but not specifically from city-owned buildings. Govrik, who started her job with the city in November 2022, spent part of her first year gathering building emission data to determine the city’s impact.

Since St. Paul passed the climate change plan, carbon emissions have declined significantly, from 21,257 metric tons of CO in 2019 to 15,800 metric tons in 2022, Govrik said. That’s a nearly 26% decrease. Emissions have been coming down for years, and she said the city should be on track to decarbonize all its buildings by 2030.

“This is really the first time we’ve had actual statistics to show how much progress we’ve made so far,” she said. “We can say we’re getting close to halfway to our goal, knowing that our end date for that carbon neutrality goal is 2030. We’re making good progress, but we still have a long way to go.”

An example of the St. Paul’s decarbonization work came in 2022, when the city decreased electricity use in  buildings by 519,000 kilowatt hours and by 3,100 therms of natural gas through efficiency and LEDs projects. A year later, St. Paul used Xcel Energy’s One-Stop Efficiency Shop, managed by the Center for Energy and Environment, to upgrade lighting at seven community and recreation centers, saving 254,000 kWh.

Although St. Paul has made great strides in reducing energy use in buildings through lighting retrofits, most of St. Paul’s carbon reduction can be attributed to Xcel Energy’s transition to clean energy. More than 60% of the utility’s electricity comes from carbon-free resources, primarily nuclear and wind energy.

The challenges

Since 2015, the city’s efficiency measures have decreased electricity consumption by 47%, but only reduced natural gas consumption by 5%.

That’s in part because city-owned buildings have a wide range of ages, sizes and uses, making a one-size-fits-all approach unworkable. “There’s so much of this that has to be done at the building level because of the unique aspects of each building,” Govrik said.

Another issue is that the city hall and annex and the central police station receive heat and cooling from District Energy, which primarily serves downtown. District Energy burns waste wood for electricity in a process involving fossil fuels.

“We’ll need improvements from District Energy,” Govrik said.

Getting the city out of the habit of buying familiar replacements when HVAC systems break down will also require a cultural shift.

The city needs to break “the business as usual of just replacing equipment with the same equipment in a more efficient version,” Govrik said. ‘If we’re replacing gas boilers with more efficient gas boilers, we still have emissions from gas boilers going forward for 15 to 20 years.”

Finally, paying for electrification will not be cheap or easy. The Legislature passed 45 energy bills in 2023 that present funding opportunities for cities, as do the Inflation Reduction Act and other federal legislation. The IRA’s direct pay allows government agencies and nonprofits to receive a 30% to 40% project reimbursement, making clean energy investment for St. Paul more affordable.

“Figuring out the best funding source, grant opportunities and rebates and incentives for every project will be a challenge,” she said. 

The next steps 

Next year, the city plans to hire a consultant to write a decarbonization plan using a $317,000 federal grant. Govrik said the Municipal Buildings Decarbonization Plan will guide St. Paul’s clean energy initiatives for the next few years. 

Since “it isn’t realistic” yet to electrify every city-owned building, staff will identify electrification projects that have the greatest impact on the city’s emissions and can take the greatest advantage of federal funding, she said.

“That plan will identify the most cost-effective pathways for achieving further energy efficiency, electrifying municipal buildings, and integrating more renewable energy into the city’s portfolio,” Govrik said.

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St. Paul sees city buildings as opportunity for quick wins on climate plan goals is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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