Powering a cleaner campus
There are more than 250 buildings on the U of M Twin Cities campus, from classrooms and offices to labs and student residence halls—nearly 30 million square feet of space, much of it requiring energy-intensive heating and cooling.
Increasing renewable energy production on campus while reducing the University’s overall energy consumption is a key goal of the new U of M Twin Cities Climate Action Plan (CAP). The University plans to triple its on-campus renewable energy production by 2033, through both an increase in solar generation and electric battery storage. By 2050, the U of M will increase its renewable energy-based power production six-fold, from two megawatts (MW) today to 12 MW by 2050 (one megawatt is enough power to meet the needs of about 140 Minnesota homes).
Shining in sustainable rankings
The University of Minnesota was among the first institutions worldwide and one of the few in the U.S. to participate in the Times Higher Ed Impact Rankings, which in 2023 included 1,591 institutions from 112 countries/regions. The rankings compare educational institutions worldwide for their work in addressing the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In 2023, the U of M ranked 8th in the U.S. overall.
Still, not all the energy needed to power campus can be produced on site, and so every year the U of M Twin Cities purchases enough electricity from solar and wind to power about 6,000 average homes. The CAP calls for eliminating emissions from purchased electricity entirely by 2033 and from campus energy plants by 2045.
Reducing energy demand
Energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why the CAP calls for a 35 percent reduction in energy use in existing buildings by 2033 (from 2019).
The University has already made significant progress in this area. In fact, while the University has been growing—adding square footage to campus—its overall energy usage has actually fallen. The University has done this through decommissioning older, inefficient buildings while renovating existing buildings, making them more efficient by adhering to the State of Minnesota's Sustainable Building Standards (B3), which guide all new construction and major renovations in the state. Under the B3 standard, which was developed by the U of M's Center for Sustainable Building Research, buildings constructed today must be 80 percent more energy efficient than buildings constructed in 2003.
Through these and other efforts, the University achieved over 8 million kilowatt hours in electricity savings in 2021—enough to avoid 5 million pounds of CO2 emissions. The new CAP calls for accelerating the implementation of the B3 standard and implementing a zero carbon standard in new construction and major renovations. It also identifies significant additional space to decommission by 2050.
Investing in sustainable architecture
With expansive views of the Mississippi River, Bruininks Hall is home to extensive technology-rich classrooms that serve about 20,000 students annually. Bruininks Hall is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certified; LEED is a globally recognized rating system for highly efficient, carbon- and cost-saving green buildings.
This 90-year-old student residence hall’s recent renovations include high-solar-gain windows throughout the facility that provide “free” heat from the sun; heat recovery systems (heat in the outgoing stale air is used to warm fresh air) in corridors and common areas; furniture made from recycled materials; highly efficient LED lighting and appliances; and a green roof that captures and recycles stormwater.
Bell Museum and Planetarium,
Located on the U of M Twin Cities campus in St. Paul, much of this natural history museum’s exterior is covered with thermally modified white pine, harvested from Minnesota forests that are ecologically managed and certified to Forest Stewardship Council criteria. The landscape surrounding the building includes a diverse blend of drought tolerant native and adapted plants. Rain gardens gather and filter all of the parking lot stormwater and send it into the ground to recharge an aquifer located below the site, while bee lawns and meadows provide habitat for the endangered rusty patch bumblebee and a wide range of other essential pollinators.
A key investment: The Main Energy Plant
Located on the East Bank of the Twin Cities campus along the Mississippi River, the Main Energy Plant was a key investment in the University’s 2011 climate action plan and has reduced the University’s carbon footprint by nearly 15 percent. The plant uses a 22.8 megawatt turbine that generates electric power (enough for about 20,000 homes) and uses the leftover heat to produce steam, which in turn travels through nine miles of underground tunnels (all with newly installed, highly efficient LED lighting) to heat buildings all over the Minneapolis campus. While the plant operates at more than 80 percent energy efficiency, it will need to be eliminated as part of the University’s pledge to become carbon neutral. Watch a TikTok video to learn more.
Become a student sustainability advocate
U of M students can gain hands-on sustainability leadership experience educating peers on sustainable practices, planning zero waste community events, and more by applying to be a Sustainability Advocate within their residence halls.