Green Ribbon Schools offer significant savings

During May, 2021, the following column in various forms, appeared originally appeared in several APG of East Central Mn newspapers, including the Star News based in Elk River.

Green Ribbon Schools offer significant savings

Twenty-eight Minnesota schools, colleges and universities have received national recognition because they’re saving millions of dollars a year as their energy practices help save our planet. I’m hoping that the Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Department of Commerce will help others learn from and implement what these schools accomplished.

Solar Panels, picture courtesy of Apex Trunorth


Award-winning schools include:

Forest Lake Area Schools: Superintendent Steve Massey told me that solar panels at the district’s high school, ice arena, Education Center and several elementary schools produce “annual savings of $200,000 per year.” They’re in the form of credits from Xcel Energy. He noted, “Every dollar saved is a dollar we are able to invest in educational services for students.” Students have built gardens to help encourage growth of native plants and helped recycle holiday lights. This and other efforts led the U.S. Department of Education to name the high school a Green Ribbon School in 2019.

Robbinsdale Area Schools’ School of Engineering and Arts (SEA): This K-5 school in Golden Valley has reduced water consumption and solid waste. The school has a prairie, butterfly garden, greenhouse, vegetable gardens and a small school forest, all of which help students learn about and improve the environment. Students monitor a local creek in partnership with the Hennepin County RiverWatch program. SEA was named a Green Ribbon School in 2020.

Waconia Public Schools: Todd Swanson, the district’s director of finance and operations, reported that the district participates in four community energy gardens. This saves the district $25,000 annually and results in $250,000 worth of “electricity generated by the sun instead of the more traditional ways of producing energy.” He noted that “the cost of implementing solar energy has fallen significantly in recent years, making projects feasible that were not feasible in the past.” Savings from a retrofit of more than 1,500 fixtures is producing annual savings of more than $60,000 per year. The district won a Green Ribbon Award in 2014.

Minnesota Green Ribbon School winners also include, among others, Rockford Middle School, the School of Environmental Studies in Independent School District 196, chartered public schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul and northeastern Minnesota, and four Minnesota colleges and universities.

USDE also gave John Olson, MDE’s science specialist (and former public school teacher), a 2019 Director’s Award for promoting best practices in environmental education.

Map from Clean Energy Resource Teams

These efforts delight Aditya Ranade, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce. He believes: “Energy is an area where economic development, local air quality and environmental concerns intersect. Climate change mitigation is one of the top issues for Minnesotans ages 18-30.” Moreover, “It’s providing increasingly significant new employment opportunities for students.” He and Jack Kluempke, the Commerce Department’s emerging energy technology supervisor, told me they offer technical assistance. But they’ve not talked with MDE staff about solar energy.

How about the Commerce and Education departments and Green Ribbon Schools co-sponsoring meetings, perhaps online, with educators, students and families? A poll of Minnesota registered voters released on May 5 by statewide group Minnesota 350 shows, across the political spectrum, most Minnesotans want to see greater use of solar energy. (The poll is found here.)

To learn more from MDE about the Green Ribbon Schools program, including Minnesota schools and colleges that have won the award, go here.  Information on the USDE’s Green Ribbon Schools program can be found here.  The Minnesota Department of Commerce offers more information on clean energy is here.

This is a great time to save money and help save our planet.  Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at or @JoeNathan9249 on Twitter.

Here are some additional examples of Green Ribbon Schools that will appear in some versions of the column:

Columbia Heights Public Schools’ North Park School for Innovation: Principal Jeff Cacek explained, “The three solar arrays on the school’s roof will save, over its lifetime, the equivalent of almost 233,000 pounds of CO2 emissions.” The school also has a school garden and has just started using a “biodigester.” According to Becky McMahon, the school’s kitchen manager, this turns all the excess food into compost-dirt, which is spread in the school’s garden. Cacek explained: “The digestate coming out of the biodigester takes all of our carbon based refuse. In the spring we will use it for gardening, but in the fall and winter, the digestate will feed our biomass boiler and heat our building. Our garbage will be keeping us warm.”

Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools: The district has environment-friendly programs in buildings and for students, which produced six Green Ribbon Awards (the most of any Minnesota school district). Kristi Mussman, district communications director, explained, “Thanks to the public’s investment in energy efficient buildings, mechanical renovations and the Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools (PLSAS) Operations Department’s close monitoring of system controls, our district saved nearly $173,000 last school year in energy cost avoidance.”

River’s Edge Academy High School in St Paul: Meghan Cavalier, the charter school’s superintendent, told me that the school (a 2018 Green Ribbon winner) reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 22% between 2013 and 2017. Significant savings came from “installing more efficient light fixtures, putting in motion sensor light switches, and by using LED task lighting in classrooms when possible. We programmed thermostats to turn down during off-peak times, put up insulating film on windows, and reduced the temperature of our water heater by 20°F.” The school features an environmental focus for students.