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A Small Town’s Big Energy Savings Plan

November 18, 2010 By Andrea Lauer, Mayor, City of Royalton

Sitting 25 miles north of St. Cloud on Hwy 10, the City of Royalton (pop. 907) is like many rural communities. It grew during the housing boom. Low gas prices, a good school district, access to a major highway, and small town living made Royalton very appealing to homeowners.

Unlike other rural cities with aging populations, Royalton’s median age is 34. Our school district is a huge asset to our community and we work to keep the lines of communication open between the city and the school. As mayor, I attend school board meetings, providing the district with monthly updates from the city. As the city, we include school information in our bimonthly newsletter. In my view, a strong school district is as much a part of economic development as any growing industry.

From rural towns to metro cities, communities of all sizes felt the bite of reduced Local Government Aid and Market Value Homestead Credit. With Royalton’s population fewer than 1000 people, we didn’t face the cuts that larger communities did; however, two years ago when discussions about cutting LGA/MVHC started, our city council began looking at ways to reduce the budget in case the state cut our aid.

At that time, the city proposed about $22,000 in reductions. The council changed the city cell phone plan, raised insurance deductibles, and modified how the city offered medical insurance to employees. In the process, it started discussing energy savings.

We changed the city’s only set of traffic lights from incandescent to LED, cutting operating costs by about half. The city paid about $4,000 to install the lights, but we received a $2,000 rebate from Minnesota Power.

We learned a lot looking at energy efficiency and found a number of organizations ready to help along the way. Perhaps the biggest hurdle was to stop, assess where we wanted to go, and design an attack plan.

About a year ago, we contacted Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) in Pine River, MN to determine if solar PV or solar thermal would help reduce city hall’s energy costs.

Several conversations later we found out we needed an energy audit of all our buildings and used that as our starting point. After an initial meeting with a company that focuses on energy upgrades, Noble Conservation Solutions, we asked our school district to participate in the discussions about making city and school buildings more energy efficient.

The premise was if the city and school district could both save money by making these upgrades, residents and the schools would ultimately benefit. The energy audits provided concrete improvement ideas that would impact current and future budget years. We are in the process of making those changes.

The City of Royalton’s application for the Local Government Renewable Energy Grant to install solar panels on city hall’s roof is pending. At the time of this article, the city had made it through the first stage in the grant process. It’s an exciting proposal and if funded through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), will provide not only cleaner energy, but an on-going way to reduce our overall energy bill. Part of the grant application includes having two Minnesota companies manufacture the solar panels (tenKsolar) and inverter (Silent Power). Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) will do the installation.

The cities of Royalton, Little Falls, and Pierz submitted a joint application with the Small Cities Development Program to offer business and home owners energy upgrades. Twenty-one home owners and nine businesses would receive energy improvement funding that could include more cost-efficient roofing, windows, siding, and insulation. It’s a win-win for businesses, home owners, local contractors, and our cities!

The GreenStep Cities program was introduced at the annual League of Minnesota Cities meeting. The program offers cities 28 best practices for sustainability. Royalton chose to participate because the program supports the goals of our ongoing work to become a more sustainable community.

We’ll use GreenStep Cities as our focus when talking with our electric provider, Minnesota Power, about the possibility of installing induction lights to replace our high pressure sodium street lights.

There are more things that cities can do to impact budgets than cut staff and services. We need to think long-term and make changes that will impact not only the budget, but the environment.

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