La Crescent | Northfield | Grand Marais

Small cities add staff to manage sustainability initiatives

Capacity for energy and environmental efforts

Steady Support for
Sustainability

 

Many American cities over the past decade appointed sustainability directors to create strategies for tackling energy-saving projects and meeting other environmental goals.

Now the trend has begun to take off even in smaller Minnesota towns that have hired part-time or assigned existing employees to oversee sustainability initiatives. Within the past few years, La Crescent, Northfield, and Grand Marais have added the title of “sustainability” to new hires.

 

A growing trend, even in small cities

Having an employee tasked to lead sustainability-related initiatives “does seem to be becoming more prevalent,” said Northfield program coordinator Beth Kallestad, who manages the city’s climate action plan.

“If nothing else, it’s helping the cities save money. The environmental aspect is important, too. But for elected folks who have to answer the question ‘why are we spending money on this?’ we hopefully will be finding some cost savings for them.”

Great Plains Institute senior energy planner Abby Finis has worked with cities that hired sustainability directors after seeing initiatives end up “on the backburner without a dedicated staff person.”

Cities with a sustainability manager tend to be those in the GreenStep Cities program and with a desire “to advance best practices that lead to better environmental, economic, and quality of life outcomes,” she said. Communities in the voluntary GreenStep Cities program pursue best practices involving energy, land use, transportation, environmental management, and resilience.

For the cities we spoke with, doing citywide sustainability planning and implementing best practices were the key motivators for having an employee or contractor assigned to the role. But each of the three cities and the individuals they hired have different tales to tell of how they decided to create a sustainability position and the responsibilities the job entails.

They realized this is saving us a lot of money and that it was worthwhile to invest in a position to continue to do those things. Their job is to promote and improve the city. They saw the value of having someone doing sustainability.

Jason Ludwigson, City of La Crescent

Civic leaders signed up for the GreenStep program in 2015 and used three college interns to make a decent amount of progress before turning to a more stable solution, said city administrator Bill Waller. Each time one of the interns left, “we lost momentum, we lost ground, and when someone wasn’t there, there wasn’t much happening,” he said. “We needed to make the position more sustainable, which is a funny way to use the word.”

Waller hired Jason Ludwigson, a technology specialist in the local school district, to work part-time as its sustainability coordinator in February 2019. He has a long history of volunteering with community groups and served on the city’s GreenStep committee.

As sustainability coordinator, Ludwigson helped oversee the three solar installations and procure a subscription to a solar garden to offset two-thirds of the La Crescent’s electricity consumption. He shepherded the city to a silver designation the SolSmart program sponsored by the Department of Energy. The program recognizes local governments for promoting solar energy.

Ludwigson now focuses on a collaboration with the Department of Transportation to do pollinator-friendly prairie restoration, promote solar to homeowners, and oversee installation of several Level 2 electric vehicle chargers.

Homeowners represent the city’s largest source of greenhouse gases, Ludwigson said. This means that the biggest future challenge will be making the city’s residential housing stock more energy efficient and educating residents about ways to reduce their energy consumption. “We are hoping to encourage behavioral change through financial incentives” to reduce energy use, he said. “That’s what we want to tackle next.”

La Crescent was wise to hire a permanent part-time staff for the city of around 6,000 residents. “They realized this is saving us a lot of money and that it was worthwhile to invest in a position to continue to do those things,” Ludwigson said. “Their job is to promote and improve the city. They saw the value of having someone doing sustainability.”

If nothing else, it’s helping the cities save money. The environmental aspect is important, too. But for elected folks who have to answer the question ‘why are we spending money on this?’ we hopefully will be finding some cost savings for them.

Beth Kallestad, City of Northfield

Northfield’s Beth Kallestad said the city splits her time between sustainability and equity and inclusion. Before joining the city of Northfield’s staff, she worked at the University of Minnesota-Extension’s Rochester office as a civic engagement educator. For the decade prior, she served as an analyst and eventually the executive director of the Cannon River Watershed Partnership.

In 2017 Northfield developed a strategic plan with six priorities, among them "Climate Change Impacts" and "Equity and Inclusion." She manages both areas. “Climate change impacts and diversity, equity, and inclusion didn’t have a good home, and they crossed a lot of departments,” Kallestad said.

Today the sustainability portion of her job focuses on the city’s Climate Action Plan, which passed last November. Immediate internal steps include studying how the city can improve efficiencies in its building stock and exploring renewable energy options, she said.

Northfield participates both in GreenStep Cities and Xcel Energy’s Partners In Energy program. She monitors GreenStep progress and promotes Xcel’s energy audits to homeowners and commercial businesses, highlighting for them the utility’s various efficiency programs.

Since most of Northfield’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, Kallestad also meets with representatives of large electricity consumers, such as the city’s two colleges and a handful of large industrial businesses.

In the coming years, she wants to promote the adoption of more renewable energy and hold more electric vehicle ride-and-drive events to encourage their adoption. The city is looking at adding EV chargers to hasten transportation electrification, too.

Sustainability is a big order of business in Northfield, and the budget remains limited, she said. Looking at all the city’s sustainability issues, Kallestad believes the hardest one will be to move homeowners away from the most popular heating fuel. “Reducing natural gas consumption will be our biggest challenge,” she said.

It’s great to live in a place that supports sustainability and has a climate action plan. Now that we have the plan, we have to work out the specifics of how we are going to reach its goals.

Shane Steele, City of Grand Marais

Shane Steele volunteered to help Grand Marais with its GreenStep Cities program before becoming the city’s part-time sustainability coordinator in 2018. The substitute teacher also had experience working at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center.

The McKnight Foundation-funded position allows Steele to manage the city’s climate action plan and research strategies that will have the most significant impact. Currently, he’s studying whether Grand Marais should consider a building benchmarking ordinance and if electric vehicles could replace some of its municipal fleet. A program in collaboration with several organizations, including the Clean Energy Resource Teams, installs LED lighting in multi-family residential buildings.

Steele likes the challenge of working in a city of around 1,400 residents with a high regard for the natural environment. “It’s great to live in a place that supports sustainability and has a climate action plan,” he said. “Now that we have the plan, we have to work out the specifics of how we are going to reach its goals.”

solar in la crescent

Solar in La Crescent

It's worthwhile, it’s the future, and it makes sense

Advocates for hiring sustainability coordinators say having a professional in place makes sense because interns and volunteers come and go and rarely have the right skill set to face the complexities of energy, waste, efficiency, and procurement.  Sustainability is “worthwhile, it’s the future, and that’s why we’re committed to it,” said Bill Waller, La Crescent City Administrator.