By Laura Billings Coleman / Illustrations by Mark Hoffmann /

Macalester covers fewer than a dozen city blocks—but how big is its carbon footprint?

Ten years ago, a team of senior seminar students set out to find what it takes to keep the college fueled for a year, adding up the carbon cost of classroom heating and lighting, overseas travel, and feeding 2,000 students three squares a day. They discovered that the campus is responsible for an estimated 19,531 annual metric tons of carbon dioxide—greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to heating more than 2,106 houses, putting 4,176 passenger cars on the road, or burning 106 rail cars full of coal.

“Compared to a lot of other colleges, Macalester already was much farther along in thinking about how to reduce that impact,” says sustainability manager Suzanne Savanick Hansen, adding that the student-led CO2 calculation since has become the benchmark for doing better by the environment. Starting in 2007, when President Brian Rosenberg signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, Macalester has been on a mission to make its campus carbon neutral by 2025. This is an ambitious pledge, one that calls for reducing carbon consumption by half, and using carbon offsets to cover the rest.

As the college’s sustainability program ends its first decade, Macalester Today asked five energy sector alums to talk about trends in sustainability and to share their own tips for a cleaner energy future.

Start at Home

   “The economics have changed so that fossil fuels just aren’t competitive against renewable energy and energy efficiency. Federal energy policy could slow progress down, but a cleaner energy supply is still coming.”  —Chris Duffrin ’93

With climate-change data fast disappearing from the websites of the Environmental Protection Agency and other governmental entities, it’s been a challenging period for the sustainable energy sector. But Chris Duffrin ’93, president of the Center for Energy and Environment, an energy efficiency-focused nonprofit in the Twin Cities, still sees a silver lining. “It’s frustrating that we’re seeing a lack of federal action on these issues, but what that has done is driven more of the action to a local level than ever before, and cities and local governments are much more engaged in making better policies,” says Duffrin. “The economics have changed so that fossil fuels just aren’t competitive against renewable energy and energy efficiency. Federal energy policy could slow progress down, but a cleaner energy supply is still coming.”

Duffrin got his start in the energy sector advocating for low-income utility customers at the Energy CENTS Coalition, and then spent many years at the Neighborhood Energy Connection (NEC), the St. Paul-based nonprofit behind the HOURCAR car-sharing program, In 2016, he helped merge NEC with the Minneapolis-based Center for Energy and Environment, a move that has allowed both groups to expand the reach of their expertise in home energy audits, providing $10 million in home improvement loans each year.

With residential energy accounting for 22 percent of global energy consumption, taking the following steps in your own home can make a difference for the environment, says Duffrin, no matter what’s happening in Washington:

    Get an energy audit, and start tightening up old windows, door frames, attic bypasses, and other places where air is escaping.

    Add insulation, a home improvement with a great rate of return, cutting your carbon load by an average of 5,692 pounds every year.

    Swap incandescent bulbs for LEDs, which are coming down in price and can last for up to 25 years.

    Replace old appliances with efficient Energy Star models—and recycle that old fridge in the basement, which produces nearly 2,000 pounds of CO2 every year.

Electrify Your Ride

“I’ve become evangelical on the subject of electric cars because we’ve reached the point where making a sustainable choice isn’t a sacrifice—it’s actually saving me money.”  —Sarah Clark ’86

If Sarah Clark ’86 has anything to say about it, your next car will run on electricity.

The director of program advancement at Fresh Energy, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that advocates for clean-energy alternatives, Clark is also the proud owner of a 2013 Nissan Leaf that saved her $1,700 in fuel and maintenance over the last year: “I’ve become evangelical on the subject of electric cars because we’ve reached the point where making a sustainable choice isn’t a sacrifice—it’s actually saving me money.”

Although transportation just overtook energy generation as the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, plug-in vehicles like Clark’s—which make up just one percent of car sales—could help reverse the trend. Not only do plug-ins produce at least 30 percent (and as much as 80 percent, depending on your region) less greenhouse gases than their fossil-fueled counterparts, they can run even cleaner when fueled by renewable energy, such as the Xcel Windsource program that powers Macalester’s electric car plug-in station. As the cost of solar and wind energy continues to come down, the financial benefit for consumers will only improve—one reason why carmakers like GM, Ford, and Volvo are speeding up their production of electric-powered cars.

“We used to talk about how sustainability meant using less electricity, but with new technology and fuel sources, the message is now about how we can use clean energy intelligently to power the economy,” says Clark. “When GM announces that the future is electric, there’s no stopping the momentum.”

If you’re in the market for a new ride, you could get in line for the new mass market Tesla Model 3, or take advantage of the wave of first-generation electrics just off lease and ready to sell. “They’re such a great deal right now,” Clark says. “I got mine for $9,000, and it’s the best car I’ve ever driven.”

Seed a Solar Garden

“If renewable energy is seen as something that only a few people can afford, it won’t go very far.” 
—Timothy Den-Herder Thomas ’09

The cost of solar panels has come way down over the past decade—but paying for them upfront still creates sticker shock for most families who could use a break on their energy bills. “It appears expensive because we’ve expected individuals to pay for the full cost of solar up front—kind of like building your own power plant,” says Timothy Den-Herder Thomas ’09. “The whole system is really upside down.”

Den-Herder Thomas is doing what he can to put renewable energy right-side up as the general manager of Cooperative Energy Futures. The South Minneapolis-based clean energy co-op is developing eight community solar gardens around the state aimed at making solar accessible to low-income households. Using a community subscription model that allows users to immediately reduce their electric bills without an upfront cost, his startup has community solar gardens underway on the roofs of a North Minneapolis temple, the Edina public works building, and a Catholic church in Eden Prairie, with a half-dozen more Minnesota projects in the pipeline. Utilities have been using the model of passing on the cost of new plants and infrastructure to thousands of customers for more than a century, he says. “There’s really no reason we shouldn’t be using the same business model for community-based clean energy.”

Former Udall scholar Den-Herder Thomas also serves on the board of Community Power, an advocacy group that has been a major player in pushing the City of Minneapolis, Xcel Energy, and CenterPoint Energy to come together around a climate action plan. “Growing up in the New York metro area, where the divide between rich and poor is in your face, I’ve always been interested in the disconnect between the way our society works and what we need to change for it to be fair and livable and ‘sustainable,’” he says. Making renewable energy accessible to people of all income levels is a critical first step, Den-Herder Thomas believes. “If renewable energy is seen as something that only a few people can afford, it won’t go very far. But if it helps ease the burden on low-income people, it can be the start of something that works long term.”

Catch the Wind

“The energy sector has such a large impact on the environment, so I’m passionate about bringing in new voices and improving diversity in this sector.”  —Julia Eagles ’06

Julia Eagles ’06 got a ground-level glimpse of the energy industry by going to door to door in Minneapolis’s Phillips neighborhood, encouraging residents to replace old air conditioners and refrigerators through a utility-subsidized efficiency program. “I was basically a glorified appliance salesperson,” Eagles says of the gig she started fresh out of Macalester that introduced her to some of the challenges of making energy efficiency services widely accessible. “For renters, there are questions around who owns the appliances, who pays for the improvements, and who benefits from the energy savings,” making it challenging to incentivize people to make an investment that may take time to pay off, she says. “It’s one reason that renters and low-income communities are underserved by energy-efficiency efforts.”

As public policy and strategy manager for Xcel Energy, figuring out how state policies, energy rates, and public utilities regulation can work together to make sustainable energy more accessible is now her full-time job. “As a student, I would not have pictured myself working for a big utility, but it’s a fascinating time to be in the industry,” says Eagles, who has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “It’s an impactful place to be in terms of carbon emissions reduction.”

Already the country’s top wind utility provider for more than a decade, Xcel Energy just accelerated its investment in renewable energy, announcing plans to add 1,850 megawatts of wind energy in the Midwest over the next four years—enough power for nearly one million homes. In Minnesota alone, the utility aims to get 60 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030—a shift that many consumers are encouraging by installing rooftop solar panels, subscribing to community solar gardens, or adding wind turbines to farms. “The biggest change now, and what makes it a really interesting time in the industry, is the shift to a more distributed system where there’s more options for customers to choose their generation sources and control their energy use with advanced technologies,” Eagles says. The challenge as more customers “grow their own” energy, she says, is that utilities must “figure out ways to make that work on a system that’s been set up to deliver power one way while keeping rates fair for all customers.”

A founding board member of the Twin Cities chapter of Young Professionals in Energy, Eagles actively encourages the next generation of Macalester grads to join the industry to work toward decarbonizing the economy. “The energy sector has such a large impact on the environment, so I’m passionate about bringing in new voices and improving diversity in this sector,” she says. “We need people who can think outside their silos, and come up with better solutions for everyone.”

Prepare for Turbulence

The unpredictability of the energy market always appealed to Zach Axelrod ’06, who decided he would make it his career even before he arrived at Macalester to study economics: “As the cost of traditional fossil fuel was going up and the cost of renewable energy was coming down, I could see that at some point in my lifetime they would intersect, and it would be a lot of fun.”

But even he was surprised by the sudden turn his business took at Arcadia Power—a national company that offers clean energy services alongside traditional utility options in one bill for customers—the day President Donald Trump announced the U.S. wouldn’t live up to its 2015 pledge at the Paris Climate Accord. “We signed up more people for clean energy in the six days after that announcement than we have in any period before or since,” says Axelrod, Arcadia Power’s VP of Energy Services. “Our business jumped massively because of his policy in the other direction. People just decided, ‘Well, if our government isn’t going to do what every other government in the world has done, we’ll have to do something ourselves.’”

Over the last decade, Axelrod has seen his share of boom and bust cycles in the renewable energy sector—from working for a failed start-up to seeing the solar hot water company he started in 2009 run into roadblocks. “The way we’ve set up our grid and paid for it has operated the same way for roughly 100 years and that’s all breaking down right now,” says Axelrod. “It’s very exciting for consumers, and it’s good for the world that this is happening.”

Though he doesn’t own a car, Axelrod offsets his frequent air travel by investing in community solar. The success of the renewable economy, he says, relies on making it “ridiculously easy for people to do the right thing.” For instance, Arcadia Power allows customers around the country—renters included—to switch to renewable energy with a few clicks on its website: And ease is important, says Axelrod. “If it takes just a few minutes to make the world slightly better, more people will do it.”

Sustainability Successes

Ten years after it launched, Macalester’s Sustainability Office has plenty of successes to report, from getting more students to take public transit to having a quarter of Markim Hall’s energy needs supplied by its rooftop solar panels. Here are some other highlights:

Recycled Rec Center: When the Leonard Center was built, more than 14,000 tons of demolition waste from the old rec center was recycled or reused, keeping more than 93 percent of the debris out of landfills.

Bottle Ban: The average American consumes 167 bottles of water a year and recycles only 38 of them. Since 2011, Macalester has helped keep that plastic out of the waste stream by banning water-bottle sales and encouraging students to fill up at campus water fountains instead.

Clean Machines: Since 2013, the Mac community has been fueling electric vehicles at two dedicated charging stations powered by wind energy from Xcel’s Windsource program.

In the LEED: Macalester’s Markim Hall—the first higher ed building in the state to receive the top Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design distinction—uses 80 percent less energy than does a typical Minnesota building.

Saving Leftovers: Once a week, volunteers from Cafe Mac’s Food Recovery Network collect leftover dining hall food and send it to the local meal program Loaves and Fishes. Food waste also gets a second life: it’s collected as feed for pigs.

Efficiency Mode: Facilities Services has retrofitted many buildings, outdoor walkways, and parking lot lights with LED lighting, already saving  $92,000 to date. By 2022, the college is projected to save more than $1 million from energy efficiency projects put in place since 2015.

Trees for Travel: The average study-abroad airline flight emits about a metric ton of CO2. Returning students are encouraged to look for ways to reduce that impact by participating in events such as tree planting. (Macalester College Student Government, the Center for Study Away, and the Sustainability Office are seeking more opportunities in this area.)

Zero Waste: To reach its goal of Zero Waste by 2020, Mac added recycling and composting bins alongside its trash barrels in 2013. To prevent a big garbage pile-up on move-out days, trash bins are made scarce, forcing students to recycle, donate, or trade what they no longer need.

Smart Landscaping: Native plants and porous pavers around Markim Hall and the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center aren’t just pretty—they’re also designed to prevent storm-water runoff.

April 23 2018

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