Duluth, Minn., Earns Sustainable City Award

The “Zenith City” eyes cleaner skies and green power by midcentury—and is well on its way.

Small city … forward thinking … healthy air. That sums up Duluth, which for the past seven years has successfully balanced the needs of a growing population against an ever-more-fragile environment. 

The city of about 87,000, in alignment with its Climate Action Work Plan —designed to help it reach 2050 climate control goals—has cut carbon emissions by 32 percent since 2016, largely due to energy efficiency and conservation efforts on city buildings, utility operations and its municipal vehicle fleet. 

Duluth is on track to hit a 50 percent carbon emissions reduction goal by 2030; the city could even reach 80 percent by 2050, according to (now former) Mayor Emily Larson.

In 2022, the city agreed to move from a coal-only fired steam system downtown to, by 2035, a hot water closed loop system--one where water is heated at a remote facility and transferred to businesses, eliminating the need for individual water heaters. This process will ultimately save 20 million gallons of water from Lake Superior annually, which, although it is the largest freshwater lake in the world, is also one of the world’s fastest-warming. 

There are also plans to add 700 megawatts of wind and solar renewable energy generation over the next 15 years. Duluth will also invest in grid batteries that by 2026 will store up to 500-MW of energy, according to the city’s sustainability office.

Duluth - Lake Superior

The city’s planned switch from a coal-only fired steam system to a hot water closed loop system will save 20 million gallons of water from Lake Superior annually. CREDIT: Helena Jacoba/Flickr

Green for Green Thinking

Over the past two years, more than $40 million in funding has been awarded for projects that focus on sustainability, including transportation, infrastructure, and renewable energy planning. 

According to a report by Minnesota Cities, one such example is Duluth’s effort toward creating and adopting internal energy efficiency policies for city buildings and fleets. Electric or hybrid vehicles are prioritized; employees must justify a nonelectric purchase and show there’s no sustainable option. 

It’s not an easy process, according to Duluth Sustainability Officer Mindy Granley. “To replace all vehicles with more sustainable options will take time—perhaps 10 to 20 years,” Granley notes. 

“But the new policy is a start. You have to set the flag in the ground now so you can make changes over time.”

Charging Ahead

There is also the Canal Park charging station, 45 kilowatts of solar panels that shade parking spaces and provide access to electric vehicle chargers. 

By the end of 2023, the structure had saved the equivalent of 23,000 gallons of gasoline, 5,215 trees and 148,000 gallons of water. Each year, it powers the equivalent of 13 vehicles or 7 average-sized homes and prevents 130,952 pounds of CO2 equivalents. 

A similar project, a community solar garden, was purchased in part by the city of Duluth “to give citizens the option to participate in solar power without having installations on their own homes or property,” according to a report by garden partner Minnesota Power (MP). “The city saw an opportunity for a stable investment into solar power for the next 20 years, and at a better rate of return than the federal reserve’s offers, where money was being kept,” MP notes.


Duluth’s Climate Action Work Plan gives the city and its residents some climate goals to shoot for—such as cutting carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. CREDIT: Sam Wagner Timelapse/iStock

“By reinvesting this money from reserves into purchasing 40 percent of the community solar garden output, Duluth ultimately will fully pay back in around 8 to 9 years, leaving 11 to 12 years of savings that are estimated at over $2 million.”

A recent grant will map future solar power efforts in Duluth, starting with a community-wide conversation about how excess energy should be stored. According to Granley, the informal meetings could identify community needs that city officials haven’t considered. 

Examples include a solar-powered location that integrates batteries in order to support community members during a grid outage, to charge phones or provide ice or food; and a solar planning toolkit to share with other Midwest cold-climate communities. 

Key Sustainability Facts

Population: 86,372

Planned Reduction in Carbon Emissions by 2050: 80% 

Acres of Green Space Throughout the City: 11,000

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