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What do cities need to achieve a net-zero future? These researchers are working to find out.

SoDak 350 Vice Chair Austin Wallace explores lessons learned from other Midwestern cities that could help Sioux Falls chart a path to zero emissions

Image source: Wikivoyage

In 2021, eight Sustainability Capstone students at the University of South Dakota set out to answer one big question: what would it take for the City of Sioux Falls to fully transition from carbon-based energy to carbon-free energy sources by 2035? The Sustainability Capstone report identified five key focus areas of research: Technological Assessment, Financial Impact, Energy Conservation and Decreased Demand, Public and Environmental Health, and Education and Communication. Their report found that a transition to renewable energy is not just doable but also necessary, as inaction will only worsen climate change's existing impacts for Sioux Falls residents.

Michael Heisler, Jeff Smith, and I had the opportunity to pick up where the report left off. Through some communication with Sioux Falls, we determined that there needed to be additional research and specific implementation tactics regarding the financial and technical aspects of a plan of this magnitude. There are many moving parts and entities that need to be included in the decision-making processes of a city-wide sustainability plan, which led us to look outward for guidance.

Following the Leaders: Looking to Regional Models

We began by compiling a list of about 100 cities and towns across the United States that already have or are in the process of implementing a sustainability plan in their community. The idea for a plan like this is not exclusive to Sioux Falls and we do not have to reinvent the wheel. We could research how others made it possible and identify aspects of their plans that could be applicable to Sioux Falls. From our list of cities, we narrowed it down to seven cities by selecting those that were most comparable to Sioux Falls in geographic location (Upper Midwest/Great Plains Region), economic base, and population: Madison, Wisconsin; Rochester, Minnesota; Des Moines, Iowa; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Missoula, Montana.

We then reached out individually to each city’s respective sustainability representatives explaining who SoDak 350 is, what we are trying to learn, and what we hoped to accomplish in learning how their cities implemented the renewable energy initiatives. Of those seven cities, we received responses from five of them. Two of those were able to share financial data that they collected on solar gardens, municipally owned buildings, and purchased energy agreements, as well as advice on approaching critical stakeholders like city officials, community members, development boards, businesses, and utility and energy providers.

Lessons Learned: Exciting Initiatives and the Importance of Relationships

Representatives from Rochester, Grand Rapids, and Missoula were gracious enough to meet with us via Zoom to discuss their plans more in-depth. We learned about grants they secured to fiscally leverage the energy transition, and the use of consultants in compiling and calculating energy demand, consumption, and future energy needs on an ultra-specific scale. Additionally, these cities emphasized the importance of updated building codes to retrofit older buildings and requirements for new buildings to ensure energy and water efficiency. Specific initiatives included the electrification of city-owned fleet vehicles, increased walkable and bikeable paths to encourage other means of transit, and net metering options that would allow solar panel owners to sell back their surplus electricity to the utility providers.

City representatives cited the need to address energy emissions across all sectors and end-uses. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Building efficiency and electrification are key pieces of the decarbonization puzzle. Source: Minnesota Department of Commerce Division of Energy Resources.

One of the biggest takeaways from our conversations with these cities was the importance of fostering relationships - with city councilors and other policymakers, with community organizations and civil society, with businesses and building contractors, with citizens, and with utilities and energy providers. Plans like these do not work unless everybody’s voices are heard. It takes community-wide collaboration and thoughtful planning to set these plans in motion to create real, positive change. And that is precisely our goal at SoDak 350, to bring those people to the table, to have these conversations, to develop those relationships so that our community can take action and craft their own sustainable, bright future.

Editor’s note: In the coming weeks and months, SoDak 350 is excited to continue sharing more details about what we’ve learned from other cities working towards 100% zero-carbon energy. This ongoing series will present lessons learned from the experiences of similar cities and explore how they can be applied to achieve a sustainable future for Sioux Falls.


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