Duluth wins funds to design a district geothermal wastewater system

June 2023

Duluth got the news in early May: the city is one of only eleven communities across the United States to receive Department of Energy funding to design a geothermal heating district!

“Often, when we talk about renewable energy, folks are usually thinking about electricity — but that is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Mindy Granley, City of Duluth Sustainability Officer. “The other 80% of the iceberg that sits below the water, unseen, is heating buildings. This project is part of answering the question: how can we heat buildings in a cold climate without fossil fuels?

In Duluth, the idea is a geothermal (or underground) system will harness energy from local wastewater runoff to heat buildings through a local distribution network.

Duluth Lincoln Park

Photo of Lincoln Park hub in Duluth, Minn. Courtesy of Ecolibrium3

The group leading the charge — LNPK 156 Geothermal Coalition — will conduct a study and design the new system. Initial estimates show that this plan could meet the heating load for 2.4 million square feet of buildings in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, and support an additional 1.8 million square feet of buildings in the city’s downtown and Canal Park. 

“This project could accomplish a major transition to renewable energy while supporting parts of our community that have traditionally been impacted by poverty and high energy costs.”

Mindy Granley, City of Duluth Sustainability Officer

The timing of the design grant is serendipitous, especially if the project is eventually selected by the Department of Energy for more funding to build the system. By then, the City of Duluth will be rebuilding West Superior Street through the Lincoln Park neighborhood as a climate resilient transportation corridor. If that project and the geothermal system are built at the same time, considerable cost savings can be accomplished.

Playing a major role in the project is Ecolibrium3, a Duluth-based nonprofit dedicated to sustainably revitalizing the Lincoln Park community and similar work throughout northeast Minnesota. Jodi Slick, founder and CEO of Ecolibrium3, explains the significance of this project for the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

“This is an example of how the White House's Justice40 Initiative can work,” says Slick. “It brings the resources to a frontline community to not only plan, but hopefully deploy renewable technology. Having high wastewater discharge in our neighborhood is one of the reasons Lincoln Park is defined as an environmental justice community. This project can demonstrate how we can turn a burden into an environmental and economic benefit for our neighborhood AND develop a model that could benefit the other 16,000+ neighborhoods with public wastewater treatment plants.”

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