Dedication to efficiency; a Mayor’s pledge

Dedication to efficiency; a Mayor’s pledge

ROCHESTER, MINN -- The building manager of Rochester’s Recreation Center has a lot on his hands. At any one moment, an ice skater could be practicing their double axel on one of two sheets of ice in the facility, while just a few yards away swimmers could be practicing for their next competition in the Olympic-sized pool at the natatorium. These two extremely different environments -- the ice arena which hovers around 40 degrees, and the swimming pool area which is closer to 70 degrees -- magnify the very high costs that can come with heating and cooling a building. It also illustrates why energy efficiency is so important, and why it can be a real challenge for some buildings.


Rochester’s Rec Center -- as it is known locally, is one of a slate of city-operated facilities undergoing significant energy efficiency improvements thanks to the work of design-build and sustainability firm, McKinstry, which has a local office in Minneapolis.

Meet Rochester’s Climate Mayor

Rochester, Minnesota, the third-largest city in the state, is led by Mayor Kim Norton. Elected in 2018, she ran on a platform dedicated to fighting climate change. A member of the Climate Mayor’s group, her first act as mayor upon her swearing-in was to sign Rochester on to the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition. Mayor Norton says the City remains committed to working with the federal government, and across coalitions committed to the Paris climate agreement.

“We can be a strong city voice because particularly in the last four years, when the federal government was not interested in environmental and sustainability issues, the leadership came from cities,” she says. 

Mayor Norton has quite the energy chops. After serving in the Minnesota House for a decade, retiring in 2016, she became a Bush fellow and went back to school at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute to study energy policy and leadership. 

In 2017, Mayor Norton’s predecessor announced the following climate goals for the City of Rochester:

  • 15% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015

  • 30% reduction by 2025

  • 80% reduction by 2050

A commitment to sustainability

In 2018, the City backed up its commitment to climate by creating a new sustainability team. Lauren Jensen is the City’s Sustainability Coordinator. She explains what her role entails:

“We have specific goals that our City has adopted to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions [and] to reduce our energy usage, but it's really become much bigger than that. Initially our work was heavily focused on our energy use. Now we look at transportation; waste; air quality; we have a local bike sharing program, so micro mobility initiatives; electric vehicles -- it's really become a lot. Pretty much anything that the City does, we have a hand in ensuring that it's happening sustainably,” she says. 

Lauren also works with the City’s new Sustainability and Resiliency Task Force, a group of up to 50 community members helping the City create a vision for the future. The engagement work of the task force has made a powerful impression on Lauren, who says she’s proud to work for a City that is putting such thoughtful emphasis on community engagement. 

“What makes me really proud about that is we have these lofty climate goals to achieve, but we hadn't really thought about equity in their implementation. And so with this process, we're really giving the community a voice in what our community looks like in the future, and how we adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change,” Lauren explains.

The power of benchmarking 

In addition to the engagement work with the community, the sustainability team also oversees a voluntary energy benchmarking program for local businesses that was started two years ago. The main goal of the program at this stage is to encourage private business owners and public entities to monitor their energy usage. This creates a baseline and allows them to compare their usage to buildings of similar sizes -- after all, you cannot manage what you don’t measure.

In addition to helping commercial businesses identify ways to improve building performance, the City is also prioritizing making their own buildings more efficient. One success story that illustrates the City’s commitment to energy efficiency is the Mayo Civic Center. This event center sits just across the river from City Hall. In 2017 the building underwent a $2.6 million energy efficiency and sustainability upgrade project performed by McKinstry. 

Transforming the Mayo Civic Center

McKinstry’s work is all about creating energy efficient and sustainable buildings and reducing the energy bill for their customers. After first completing an energy audit of the Mayo Civic Center, the McKinstry team identified a series of areas to make energy efficiency improvements. 

“When we started working with the Mayo Civic Center here, lighting was one of the big things that came up right away,” says McKinstry Senior Program Manager Pierre Khalil. 

Pierre continues, ”This is a large event space with high ceilings and a large footprint and so there's a significant amount of energy that goes into lighting. As we talked about the visibility of projects with the building managers, we wanted to make sure [that] not only were we saving energy by switching to LED and improving controls, but we wanted to improve the environment as well, and thus improve the occupant experience,” he explains. 

The McKinstry team implemented high-performance improvements that included:

  • A comprehensive lighting upgrade to energy efficient LED
  • Improved lighting controls
  • Retrofit of the audio system
  • New building controls for optimization of the heating, cooling and ventilation systems

Overall the project created $180,000 in energy savings annually for the Civic Center, thereby reducing energy consumption of the building by 21% and reduced 1,144 tonnes of CO2 emissions. 

In addition to the Civic Center, McKinstry has completed energy improvements at the Recreation Center, which resulted in $152,00 in energy savings annually, thereby reducing the building's energy use by 25% and reducing CO2 emissions by 820 tonnes. A third sustainability project is underway at the city’s natatorium inside the Recreation Center, to be completed in 2021.

Efficiency goals are a powerful tool 

One of Pierre’s colleagues at McKinstry is John Neville, who serves as the Midwest Regional Director overseeing energy efficiency, sustainability and renewable energy construction projects.  John loves ambitious clients, “Working with entities that have very specific stated goals is extremely helpful,” he explains.

“Working with a city like Rochester, where they already have sustainability goals and a climate action plan, it makes it so much easier because they've already plotted their path, and we're here to help them meet their goals to get along that path.”

“When we're at city council meetings, they're very receptive, asking questions like: How soon can we get there, what's the plan, when will we start implementing the project, etc. So it's all about completion, and then it's about the excitement to get to whatever percent of their Climate Action Plan that we're able to achieve for them,” John explains. 

Why efficiency is so important in Rochester

Rochester is currently in a contract with Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (SMMPA) until 2030. The City Council recently moved to end that contract in 2030, in large part to help the City find more avenues to achieve its carbon reduction goals. 

Until then, Mayor Kim Norton says the City is particularly committed to energy efficiency projects like the Mayo Civic Center and the Rochester Recreation Center.

“Well they're instrumental. I mean, we absolutely have to have our large buildings, our new construction, our retrofitting, we have to have those as energy efficient as possible in order to keep us incrementally moving forward to reach our goal. We just have to. It's really the only tool we have, besides transit. Having energy efficient buildings right now is key, and just something I hope we can continue to encourage builders, developers and others to help us meet our goals. We want partners,” she says. 

Efficiency projects pay for themselves

One barrier for clean energy investments can be the upfront cost, but energy efficiency projects are different. Because of the significant energy, operation and maintenance savings generated by the projects, the City did not have to foot the bill upfront but rather could pay for the projects by using these savings. 

“With the Rochester Rec Center project, we were able to find enough energy savings that there was really no need for capital to do the project. It was paid for just by the energy savings that we were able to find,” says project manager Pierre Khalil. 

The City was also able to take advantage of a unique financing tool called the Guaranteed Energy Savings Program or GESP. GESP is a state program administered by the Department of Commerce that allows public entities to use the energy and operating savings generated to help finance the project over time.

While the project is still underway at the Rochester Recreation Center, improvements so far include upgrading the ice facility to a more environmentally-friendly refrigerant which is also much more energy efficient. The McKinstry team developed a heat recovery system that was right-sized for the building. Phase 2 of the project involves a complete redesign of the indoor air handling system that includes installing ultra high-efficiency units with heat recovery and variable speed fans to make the swimming pool more energy efficient in Minnesota’s cold climate.

Why it matters

For many who work in energy efficiency and sustainability, part of their job is making the case for why their work matters. For an engineer like Pierre, he explains it this way: 

“I think recognizing that our built environment is obviously necessary, but also requires a lot of energy -- it takes of a lot of natural resources to sustain that and the carbon impact that goes with it. I think there’s a lot of alignment between responsible use of indoor spaces and how that associates with taking care of our outdoor spaces as well.”

That kind of commitment from sustainability-focused companies is exactly the kind of partnership Mayor Norton is looking for. “As we move ahead, I really hope that we are that city that people can look to and say they were on the right path. They set their goals and we're going to improve those goals so that we keep getting better and better,” she says.