10 Years of GreenStep

Morris models sustainability for rural communities

Now in its 10th year, Minnesota GreenStep is a voluntary challenge, assistance, and recognition program to help cities and tribal nations achieve their sustainability and quality-of-life goals.

Diana McKeown, Metro CERT Director at Great Plains Institute, connected with Blaine Hill, City Manager with the City of Morris. Morris has been part of the GreenStep program since 2016 (see their progress).

GreenStep Cities really gives us an idea of the different things we can do and how we could do them.

Blaine Hill, City Manager with City of Morris

What action are you most proud of since joining GreenStep Cities?

Blaine Hill: The city of Morris is in GreenStep Cities and we have a coalition that works on all these issues together. It’s the city, the university, West Central Research and Outreach Experiment station, the county, the school district—we have what’s called the Morris Model. We work on actions together, so the biggest thing that we realized when we started working on all these little things with GreenStep Cities was that we had already done some of those things that were suggested from the GreenStep Cities program. Then we just had to document them and got credit for them. However, we realized that we started working on all these things, but we didn’t have an overall concept or set of goals that we wanted to work toward. So one major thing that we did was we passed what’s called the Sustainability Strategic Plan for the Morris Model. The City of Morris passed it, the county passed it, the school district passed it, the University passed it and there’s three big goals to reduce the amount of energy we’re using to produce our own renewable energy and to get rid of sending garbage to the landfill. 

People kind of laughed and said, “Well, no landfilling of waste is never gonna happen,” and actually that had the shortest goal, which is by 2025—but right now, we’re working with the county. If you can pull the organic waste out of our garbage system and send it to an organic waste composting site—it’s like a third of our garbage. 

We passed this Strategic Plan that lays out the goals that we want to meet in the city and it was unanimous with the city council, which is really hard to find in small rural communities. One of the cool things is—we have an electric hybrid city vehicle—we put a level two charger on the back of city hall and we have a level two charger at the grocery store in town, so anybody that comes to town with an electric vehicle (EV) can charge downtown. If you ever look at a map of electric charging stations in Minnesota, you’re gonna see this little spot in West Central Minnesota where there are up to 7 charging stations now around here. It’s kinda cool. 

See Best Practice Actions for more information on green teams (24.1), sustainability plans (6.5), organics composting (22.5), city electric vehicle fleets (13.3), and public EV charging infrastructure (23.5).

What has the GreenStep Cities program helped the City of Morris achieve?

Blaine Hill: I think what it has really allowed us to do is to have access to all the different ideas. It helped us understand what we’ve already done. It helped us understand the things that we could be doing right away and then it kind of gave us an idea of those things that maybe we have to find a different way of trying to achieve them. 

Actually, I’ll give you an example of that—so, GreenStep Cities gave us the window into all these different things and then that led to applying for a LCCMR grant. There wasn’t enough staff time available to work on sustainability projects and we kept saying, “it sure would be nice if we had a person to work on this,’” and so we applied for an LCCMR grant and they gave it to us—$150,000. With that, we hired a sustainability coordinator and unfortunately, he went back to Florida and so now we hired a replacement who’s coming from Spain. He’s going to start in the middle of September, but he is going to focus on working on most of the strategic plan issues. Then we had a Minnesota GreenCorps member that was working with us, but it really gives us an idea of the different things we can do and how we could do them. A very good framework.

Can you tell us about an example of sustainability in action that people can see or visit?

Blaine Hill: I mentioned the EV car chargers—it’s really easy for somebody to see that. The solar installations that are in place right now at the University. The high school students put up a small solar array for the robotics team, so they get the energy off of it and the cost of the energy off of it. At the University, the two wind turbines that they have, and then they just put in a 240 kW solar array on an agricultural pasture where the cows will actually graze underneath it. So, that’s really cool. 

See Best Practice Actions for more information on public EV charging infrastructure (23.5) and installing public renewable energy projects (26.5).

What about something that can’t be seen or visited but is important to your sustainability efforts?

Blaine Hill: We put in a brand new water treatment plant that softens water at the plant, and in turn, people no longer have to use water softeners that use salt that goes into the sewer and that goes into the river. That was a major change that happened in June of last year, so we already know that the level of chloride going into our sewer system now is way down to almost nothing. The only problem is that sewer ponds over the years have built up a lot of salt in them, so it’s going to take awhile for it to clear out, but we think that’s gonna be good for the river in the long-run. 

Then, we’ve been slowly transitioning our tree inventory in anticipation of Emerald Ash Borer because we have a lot of ash trees in Morris. I can’t remember how many counties we’re up to now that have Emerald Ash Borer detected, but it has pretty much moved across Minnesota now. 

Then, we have our Sustainability Strategic Plan and people don’t necessarily see the goals that we set. The one thing that I didn’t really anticipate—every once in a while something would pop up with a short timeframe—like the county is doing a grant for the organic waste collection. Well, the county would like a letter of support from the city and it’s like, “yeah, absolutely, it’s one of our three goals.” I don’t even have to go to the city council and ask them to support that one, because the council already approved it. So it drives a lot of things that you don’t realize that come up that you can already say “yes” to. 

See Best Practice Actions for more information on reducing chloride in water (20.4).

Is clean energy important to your community?

Blaine Hill: Clean energy is important because that’s our future. We can make energy here in Morris. We can do it through wind, we can do it through solar, we can do it through biomass energy production. So the idea that we would have to rely on a coal-fired power plant out in North or South Dakota that can make our energy and bring it to us—we don’t need to do that, we don’t have to do that. Our future is here if we want to do it and the interesting part about that is 10 years ago they would have laughed at us, “You’re never going to be making energy in western Minnesota,” but that’s exactly what’s happening now. The coal-fired power plants are all shutting down now, including the one by the coal mine in North Dakota, because it’s the most expensive energy and now everybody’s realizing it. 

We always laugh out here because somebody said, “the wind doesn’t blow all the time” and it’s like “ehh, the wind blows a lot of the time out here!” We live in a windy place and wind turbines do really well out here. The University of Minnesota-Morris just became carbon-neutral for electricity—with that solar array they put in and the wind turbines that they have—they can produce all the energy they need. 

And battery storage. I think one of the questions you had is about what we’re working on now and I mentioned solid waste, but we’re really looking at battery storage in the University—they’ve got some things in the works, doing some studying on battery storage and actually the new Sustainability Coordinator coming in is coming out of the Navy where he had been working on energy. He’s been working with electricity generation, solar, battery storage, etc., so we’re really excited to have him—the scientists are REALLY excited to have him because he’ll be able to work with them closely, so that’ll be fun.

Can you describe a barrier that you had to overcome to achieve a GreenStep Cities action?

Blaine Hill: Funds and lack of staff and technical capability. We’re probably better off than a lot of places because we have the University of Minnesota-Morris and the research station—so literally scientists that work on this kind of stuff. Time is a big one with me and I would throw in there too: regulatory issues. If you look at what they’re doing in Germany, they can do it because they have a German government that allows things to happen more than in the United States obviously. When you get into things like water and electricity, the regulations that are in place—ideally we would love to put in a community solar garden, but the owner of the territory gets to make that decision: that’s Otter Tail Power for us. And so, regulatory rules and regulations can stand in the way a little bit.

How does the City of Morris talk about climate change?

Blaine Hill: At a recent city council meeting, we had a big discussion about how there seems to be a lot more wind events. We’re talking about trees being damaged, people putting branches out in the street for the public works to pick up because branches are breaking off trees and things like that. Luckily we haven’t had any major stuff like floods or tornadoes, but the weather is really really iffy. 

Just to give you a perspective: I’m 61 and I grew up in Morris and last year I never ever remembered in my entire life corn left in fields because they were so wet last year. There were literally farmers harvesting corn in the winter, in the snow, because they couldn’t get it off in the fall. Then this year was like the perfect spring—the ground was dry and all the farmers got all their planting done. It’s like you have two years that couldn’t have been any more different. What does that tell you about climate? Farmers have dealt with massive swings in weather that we haven’t seen before. I think people are coming around. 

I was a political science major and to me it’s amazing how everything is becoming political. There’s nothing political about weather, but it is! That’s the way people look at everything and when you look at all the different types of things that we’re doing—I don’t understand why they can’t figure it out. We don’t need them to believe anything, we just focus on what we’re working on and that’s what keeps driving us.

Every year (except this year because of COVID), we have an event in a theater where we play a movie on environmental issues: whether it’s the melting ice caps, energy production, or whatever it is. We have students that help put that together along with Morris Model, city, and university speakers. We’ll have a discussion afterwards. The last time we met, we had an electric vehicle car show in Morris and everybody was like, “there are no electric vehicles here,” but then I think we had about 12 of them show up, including a Tesla. So now, “Whaaat?! In Morris, somebody owns a Tesla?!” 

We worked with the Jefferson Center that came out and had some community dialogue and brought people in to talk about climate change and resiliency and how to feel about it.

What GreenStep Cities actions are next for the City of Morris?

Blaine Hill: Solid waste composting is a major one that we’re going to be working on shortly. Ideally, what we want to do is advance in the next year to the next GreenStep City step. It gets a little bit trickier when we get into Steps 4 and 5, but there are some other things that we are doing. We have a grant for Safe Routes To School http://www.dot.state.mn.us/mnsaferoutes/, so we have a program in place where we identify all the bad sidewalks in town and we’re gonna put into place a program where people can petition to have the city do a project for them and pay for it over a period of time. 
Ideally we’d like to see some rooftop solar put up—maybe on our city buildings if we can’t get a solar farm. Then regarding our carbon footprint- reducing the amount of energy that is being used and making buildings more efficient and all those kinds of things. All the streetlights in Morris have been converted to LED and all of our buildings have been converted to LEDs, so we have done some of the easy things to do, now it’s the harder stuff. I would love to see a project where we can put solar on city hall and battery to capture the excess energy and use it overnight. The University is going to be testing some things and then we’ll transition from that. 

Learn more about Steps 4 and 5 metric reporting. See Best Practice Actions for more information on Safe Routes to School (12.2), installing public renewable energy projects (26.5), and LED retrofits (1.2). 

Would you recommend the GreenStep Cities program to other communities?

Blaine Hill: Yes, and I think the biggest thing with the GreenStep Cities program is that it helps you understand the issues, because the hardest thing is trying to explain to people what this is really all about. For some, as soon as you talk about climate—and we try to stay away from that word, because it’s such a word that creates tension between different people, and you don’t need to use it because we know it’s there, but at the same time—GreenStep Cities gives you an opportunity to have specific information that you can share and people can start to understand the issues a lot easier. Like I said, in some cases, it could be something simple as “why sidewalks are important” and if you have more people walking, you have less people driving; more people are using bicycles. It’s better for the environment, which is better for the climate, but you don’t have to focus on that.


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