The path to local community sustainability is relatively new and paved with obstacles. Just like with any new initiative, the process and strategies can make or break success. Across southern Minnesota, communities are taking steps toward becoming greener and more sustainable. While goals are similar, the path each community chooses can vary as much as the communities themselves; some have a coordinator, others have opted for taskforces and commissions. But, is there a “right” one?
The city of Austin has a long-standing Sustainability Taskforce made up of 15 members, including a city council liaison. By definition, the role of this taskforce is to advise the council on issues and to ensure participation with the city’s Green Steps program. They have a list of goals they are pursuing, including energy audits and use reductions across city buildings. With a lot of support from Hormel, Austin is doing great things—building solar, designating bike lanes on city streets and building out their nature center. In addition, the community is excited because there is an opportunity for more renewable energy. Currently the municipal utility is due to end its long-term power purchase agreement with the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (SMMPA) at the end of 2030. As the city sets itself up for possible change and progress, I can’t help but ask what’s next and who guides it forward?
Meanwhile, in similarly-sized Saint Peter–another SMMPA city–they have the same issues to confront, but no taskforce, coordinator, or commission. It has largely been up to the citizens to form their own advocacy groups and lobby the council, often to limited success.
In Rochester, there is an Energy Commission (of which I am a member), whose duties are outlined in a specific article in the city’s charter. These duties include the development of an Energy Action Plan and community outreach to achieve significant energy reductions across all sectors of the city, as well as a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Made up of eight citizen members, a liaison from the city council and an ex-officio from Rochester Public Utilities, the commission is also occasionally tasked with conducting research into things such as waste hauling and the city fleet’s idling policy. The commission has put together an Energy Action Plan, but without a coordinator to implement the proposals across all city departments, its application is limited. Currently, we are encouraging the City Manager to create such a position to facilitate the goals of the Plan.
To the east in Winona, the county and the city each have Sustainability Coordinators, as does Winona State University. Officially, the Citizens for Environmental Quality Committee meets on an as-needed basis, while the rest of the work seems to take place within a couple of community groups. Because they are mostly in Xcel Energy territory, Winona is benefitting from Xcel’s massive expansions of solar and wind energy and they’re looking at more public electric vehicle charging stations and community solar. In addition, because of their location on the Mississippi, Winona has made sustainability a resiliency and preservation issue and as such, it’s advancing rapidly.
Finally, there’s Mankato. Although they participate actively in the Region Nine Economic Development Renewables Taskforce, Mankato has no position at the city or organization within that is specifically looking at issues of sustainability on an ongoing basis. However, they have been inspired by the Rochester Energy Commission model and are looking to pursue a Mankato/North Mankato joint-powers commission in the near future. Split between Xcel and BENCO Cooperative electric companies, the area is likely to see a disparity in options for renewables in the near future and this joint-powers commission would seek to look at the area as a whole and advise their councils going forward.
I can’t say at this point that I believe any one model is the “best”, but the communities with both a citizen-lead committee or commission and a staff position to guide things seem to be the most productive and express the fewest frustrations. Ultimately, what seems to give the issue of sustainability traction is community buy-in from the public and private sectors. I believe we are rapidly moving in a direction as a region and a state, where sustainability will be part of every community’s agenda—large or small. But, if there is a first step, I believe having a venue for motivated, concerned and productive citizens to work in collaboration with local government is key to creating thoughtful policy and achieving broad community support. I look forward to opportunities to help more communities across southern Minnesota take that first, important step!