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Project Team

WSU, McKinstry

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Lifetime payback

Winona State University (WSU) was founded in 1858 and is the oldest member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System. Based in Winona, Minnesota, WSU’s mission is to “enhance the intellectual, social, cultural, and economic vitality of the people and communities we serve.” For the last two decades, sustainability has been a driving focus for the University.

WSU first started its sustainability pathway in 2007 when it joined with 284 other forward-thinking colleges and universities in signing the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. The commitment directed efforts toward addressing climate change through sustainable changes, institutional commitments, and educational student outreach.

In 2016, WSU shifted the environment and culture of the university through a student contribution toward a “Green Fee” of roughly $5 per student per semester that would help financially support this transition.

The Green Fee funds student-driven sustainability projects and student worker positions. By 2023, WSU was named a top Green College in “The Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges” for its twelfth consecutive year.

To capitalize on this momentum, WSU’s Campus Sustainability and Planning Director, Nathan Engstrom, was searching for ways to go all-in on campus sustainability, realize big energy savings and do it all without a big financial burden for students or taxpayers. Additionally, the campus has mounting deferred maintenance needs that are challenging to fund. They decided to dream big with the Leading Energy Savings and Sustainability (LESS) Project and hired CEEM-member McKinstry to lead their project through an open bid process. WSU chose McKinstry because of their expertise in working with college campuses, including Hennepin Tech, Mankato State University, and the University of Minnesota.

Even before humans walked this land, Winona must have been a beautiful place, one of the most beautiful places in the region. The Ocheti Ŝakowein, whose homeland this is, have stewarded this region and preserved its health and beauty. It’s our duty to continue that stewardship. Fifteen years ago, WSU pledged to achieve carbon neutrality. The LESS Project is a huge and transformational step in that direction for our campus and community. It will significantly reduce our carbon footprint, doing so at no cost to the taxpayers or the students. Our commitment is to keep Winona beautiful and bountiful far into the future.”

President Scott R. Olson of Winona State University

Helble Hall and WRC Solar

Meeting sustainability goals

The Leading Energy Savings and Sustainability (LESS) Project by WSU invested $12.3 million in energy efficiency upgrades, renewable energy systems, and sustainable infrastructure. Notable projects include the replacement and retrofitting of 20,000 light fixtures and controls to high efficiency LED technology and occupancy-based control, six rooftop solar PV installations, a solar carport, five electric vehicle charging stations, and a smart controlled irrigation sprinkler system calibrated by weather data. The most iconic feature of the project is four solar carports in the Integrated Wellness Complex parking lot with a total of 420 kWac of capacity.

“The WSU project was a total team effort between the WSU Sustainability / Facilities Team, Minnesota State staff, the Minnesota Department of Commerce and McKinstry to develop and construct this first solar and sustainability project on a Minnesota State Campus. The $12.3 million project cost is self-funded by the generated energy and operational savings of $685,000/year, which also provides the campus a 26% carbon reduction achievement, making it one of the most energy efficient campuses in the 54-campus Minnesota State system.”

– John Neville, Regional Director of Business Development, McKinstry

WSU Mainstreet View

WSU was able to fully realize the LESS project by leveraging the Guaranteed Energy Savings Program (GESP), a state administered program overseen by the Minnesota Department of Commerce. GESP allows public sector entities – like higher education, school districts, and governmental agencies – to leverage performance-based contracting to install energy-saving improvements to their buildings. These projects can otherwise be difficult to fund, as public facilities operate on tight budgets; performance-based contracting provides financing for these upgrades through the savings generated by the improvements themselves. WSU appreciated the support they received from the Department of Commerce on this project, especially the legal contracts, template request for proposal, and the pre-approved list of qualified and experienced contractors. Leveraging the program made the LESS project a much quicker, easier and more politically secure process for WSU than trying to develop it on their own.

The finances of this project are fantastic. You don’t have to chip away at meeting deferred maintenance and sustainability goals endlessly for years – you can bundle projects together. It’s almost a financial no-brainer.”

– Nathan Engstrom, WSU’s Campus Sustainability & Planning Director and LESS Project Manager

The technology installed at WSU through the LESS Project will provide nearly $700,000 in annual savings and removed $7,500,000 in deferred maintenance from their backlog. The lease payments that WSU makes are covered by these savings, and the savings will continue beyond the 18-year lease term. Additionally, McKinstry helped WSU to secure several rebate from Xcel Energy, the largest of which was for the LED lighting and came to $457,000, far more than they had expected. Engstrom hopes to capture the savings from these projects into a separate account that could finance future energy projects on the campus, working as a revolving project fund.

WSU Ribbon Cutting


No project is without problems, and starting a project in 2020 came with a unique set of challenges due to the pandemic. COVID negatively impacted all stages of the project; from the interviews and contractor selection (pivoted to Zoom) to the design, construction, and engineering of the project (how to safely allow for workers to be on campus with students in a pandemic). Supply chain issues created long lead times for some items, creating occasional project slowdowns and inefficiencies in workflow that would have been avoided if necessary materials arrived faster. Fortunately, solar panels were not a challenge because McKinstry had pre-purchased enough for the project – “they saved the day there,” says Engstrom.

Interconnection requirements also proved challenging for the solar portion of this project. WSU operates its own distribution system and is effectively a microgrid – they can be islanded from Xcel Energy’s broader system. This complexity caused some confusion over exactly how the solar arrays would be connected and the equipment necessary to provide safety for the campus and the grid, requiring numerous discussions with the utility. Utility requirements of extra equipment extended the project completion further, due to supply chain challenges and extended interconnection application review and approval times. All of the solar arrays will be fully operational by fall 2023, at the latest.

WSU Campus LED Lighting at dusk - Edited

Looking ahead to the future

The campus solar carport has become a highly visible symbol of WSU’s commitment to clean energy and sustainability. The campus is looking forward to using it to showcase the importance of pursuing a variety of projects that will assist the campus in fulfilling its carbon neutrality goals. WSU already has aspirations for Phase 2 of the LESS Project, including expanding water conservation in buildings, updating its central heating and cooling plants, adding more rooftop solar, and constructing a net zero academic building.

WSU is now expected to be the most efficient university in the Minnesota State system, and the ability of WSU’s campus to serve as a living laboratory will attract more sustainably-minded students.

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