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Collaborative partnership demonstrates the promise of district heating for Morris community

Morris, Minnesota, is home to a community that strives for clean energy and sustainable solutions. A recent shared heating project is a case in point. With support from the University of Minnesota Extension Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Southwest RSDP), an energy feasibility study is helping the community lower energy costs and its carbon footprint.

Collaboration for energy conservation

Aerial view of University of Minnesota Morris, adjacent schools and Stevens Community Medical Center.
Aerial view of University of Minnesota Morris, adjacent schools and Stevens Community Medical Center.

The University of Minnesota Morris (UMN Morris) has a district energy system that supplies heat to campus buildings from a central heating plant. The heating plant is close to two other important community institutions: Independent School District 2769 and Stevens Community Medical Center. The proximity of these institutions to each other combined with UMN Morris’s large heating capacity presented an opportunity to see if hot water could be piped to the other two locations from campus. First, an assessment was needed to see if this innovative project could work.

In Spring 2017, a proposal was submitted to the Southwest RSDP for a feasibility study of a shared district heating system between UMN Morris, the school district and the medical center. The three institutions wanted to explore the idea of a heating system that could be provided mostly from a single source. Ever-Green Energy, an expert in district-energy solutions, was hired to conduct the study, and two UMN Morris students assisted with the project. The team found that UMN Morris’s surplus heating capacity could heat all three institutions.

Large steep roofed building with smoke stacks, parking lot with vehicles parked in front of building.
University of Minnesota Morris district heating plant.

“When we finished the study, the team discovered the University already had the capacity to provide twice the amount of heat needed,” said Sydney Bauer, a UMN Morris student who worked on the project. Bauer worked alongside Jan Broemmelhaus, a visiting international student from Germany interested in learning about public engagement and clean energy.

One each male and female students standing in front of a commercial heating boiler.
UMN Morris energy intern Sydney Bauer and Muenster University of Applied Sciences international intern Jan Broemmelhaus.

Ultimately, the project has the potential to cut energy costs and reduce the carbon footprint for all partners. In the short term, the study had an important unintended outcome: Ever-Green’s analysis highlighted excess heating capacity from existing boilers at the elementary school, providing evidence that additional boilers weren’t necessary. “The analysis will help the school district make strategic decisions regarding boiler replacement, and may help them save money in the long-term,” said Troy Goodnough, Sustainability Director at UMN Morris.

“What struck me was the meaningful impact it had for the school district, the long-term impact it will have in Morris, and the potential to do it in other communities,” said Anne Dybsetter, Executive Director of the Southwest RSDP.

According to Goodnough, the two students played a vital role in the project success. Bauer recalled a particular moment from her summer working on the project and meeting various stakeholders. “I remember this one time Jan and I we were in a meeting. Here we are, two students, leading a meeting with senior executives and community members trying to get this project off the ground,” she said.

Rural leadership

Two commercial boilers sitting side by side in a mechanical room.
Boilers at Morris Area Schools.

The UMN Morris campus is known to partner with area organizations that are keen to gain more energy literacy and make efficient use of their systems. “The opportunity to collaborate with three critical institutions in our community to analyze our combined heating capacity is really important,” Goodnough said. “Knowing this information will help us plan for our future, save money, and cut carbon.”

Exploring the potential of a shared district heating system illustrates how organizations can work together and make efficient use of resources. The project also opened up the possibility of the three institutions working together in the future to drive local investment. “I would expect at some point, we will discuss a multi-party district heating system that can have a positive economic and environmental impact for our community,” Goodnough said.

Goodnough is also part of collaboration called the Morris Model which furthers the mission of sustainable clean energy in the community. Soil scientist and Southwest RSDP work group member Don Reicosky is also a member of the forward-looking initiative. Through these and other efforts to prioritize environmental considerations, UMN Morris has gained international attention as a sustainability leader.

Sadman Rahman and Caryn Mohr, June 2019

Sadman Rahman is a former Graduate Research Assistant with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP). Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of RSDP.

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