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The competition that earned Elk River the title of “Energy City,” as highway signs and other markers proudly declare, took place nearly two decades ago, but it has had a lasting impact.

The designation, awarded by the nonprofit Minnesota Environmental Initiative, grew from the premise that solutions to environmental problems need to make economic sense to be sustainable. Elk River was selected from more than 30 communities to show how that can be done.

Since then, “Energy City” has been the catalyst for what today is a hub of activities and demonstration projects that draw hundreds of visitors yearly, from schoolchildren to international delegations. Looking ahead, planners want to put an exclamation point on the “Energy City” concept by making Elk River “the most energy responsible city in Minnesota.”

Longtime catalyst

Energy has a long history as a driving force in the city that developed where the Elk and Mississippi rivers meet.

The first dam and sawmill went up in 1851, with grain and starch mills following it, said Steve Rohlf, a former city building official who teaches classes on local history. The predecessor of today’s Elk River Municipal Utilities harnessed the river to generate electricity a century ago.

In the 1960s, Elk River was home to the country’s first rural nuclear power plant for several years. In 1989, that same Great River Energy facility began operating as a waste-to-energy plant, burning fuel derived from waste and helping Elk River to receive its Energy City designation in 1997.

Tim Steinbeck, a Great River official and member of Elk River’s Energy City Commission, said the designation recognized “a long history of a city that welcomes energy-related businesses.”

Said Rohlf: “The reason people came here is because of the energy of the river. Energy is going to be probably the big thing going into the future. I think there’s huge economic development potential to it.”

10-year plan

The Energy City Commission is made up of local officials, businesspeople and residents and works with interested parties to create demonstration projects and with the city’s Economic Development Authority to try to attract more energy-related businesses.

“We definitely use [Energy City] as an economic development tool, to encourage those types of businesses to come to our community,” said Kristin Mroz, who works with the commission in her role as the city’s environmental technician.

Last year, the City Council approved a 10-year plan drafted by the commission that set the goal of making Elk River the state’s “most energy responsible city.” Keys to the plan are education about recycling and resource conservation and promotion of “green” building and lean manufacturing principles, reflecting a broader vision of Energy City that has evolved since the effort began.

“It was a natural progression when you’re focused so much on energy conservation and education behind it,” Mroz said.

“Energy City, when it first started, was really focused on energy, but over time we’ve adopted the whole concept of sustainability,” said Tom Sagstetter, chairman of the Energy City Commission and a manager with Elk River Municipal Utilities.

While the mission has expanded, the commission still has an emphasis on working with public and private partners to develop demonstration projects that introduce energy-efficient and sustainable technologies and practices, said commission member Bruce Sayler. He is manager of regulatory affairs and conservation at Connexus Energy, the state’s largest electric cooperative.

“The priority is on those demonstration projects and how we can get the word out to our business customers and our residential consumers on what’s available right in our own back yard,” Sayler said. “It’s a great vision. [The challenge] is how do we tie everything together, how do we get the word out?”

As of early June, Energy City’s demonstration projects had hosted about 400 visitors this year. The tours drew 520 in all of last year.

Tour stops include such spots as:

• The Great River Energy processing plant that turns trash hauled from curbside containers into burnable fuel and the plant where that fuel gets burned to produce electricity.

• The Elk River Landfill, where methane gas from decomposing material fuels generators that produce enough electricity to power 15 percent of Elk River’s homes, in a project involving Sherburne County, Elk River Municipal Utilities and Waste Management.

• A 213-foot-tall wind turbine that produces electricity for 100 homes.

Other initiatives include:

• Project Conserve, a free outreach and education program designed to teach residents and businesses how to conserve electricity, natural gas and fuel for their vehicles, Sagstetter said.

• GreenStep Cities, a voluntary Minnesota Pollution Control Agency program in which the city is taking part to adopt environmental best practices and align itself with the goals of its Energy City plan. Elk River, one of the first cities to install LED traffic lights, now is installing LED streetlights.

• The High Five program, which offers awards to encourage residents and businesses to take part in waste management and conservation activities.

“Everybody complains about how much energy is or how much energy they’re using,” Sagstetter said. “The approach we adopt here is trying to get people tools to understand where they’re using energy and how they’re wasting energy.”

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is