A brief meeting with actor Robert Redford in Utah a few years ago influenced Rochester, Minnesota’s mayor to move the city of nearly 100,000 residents to become energy net zero by 2031.

“It will be a challenge,” said Mayor Ardell F. Brede, but he believes a target is necessary as the city moves toward greener sources of energy generation. The Destination Medical Center is the first focused effort by the city and if that goes well, the concept of sustainability can move beyond the downtown core and into the neighborhoods.

Rochester Public Utilities, he pointed out, is investing in solar projects and will have greater freedom after 2030 to buy energy from greener power sources.

Part of Brede’s thinking stems from his visit to a 2006 summit on climate change in Park City, Utah, sponsored by Local Governments For Sustainability and Sundance.

The former Mayo Clinic executive remembers being impressed when getting a ride to the complex’s lodge and not hearing it arrive because the vehicles were electric — and silent.

He briefly met with Redford — the legendary actor, Sundance Institute founder and climate activist — during the conference.

“I met with Mr. Redford and I told him one of the things we got going here is waste-to-energy and he said, ‘Yes, that’s the stuff we have to keep doing,’” Brede recalled, referring to a waste-to-energy plant in downtown Rochester. “He was obviously in favor of that being renewable and energy efficient. And that we had this going on in our backyard impressed him.”

Brede came back energized by the conference. He created the city’s Energy Commission, a 10-member body that makes recommendations to lower energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions, works on measuring the city’s energy performance and is finalizing a local energy plan to promote efficiency and conservation.

Rochester’s Destination Medical Center should be as energy efficient as possible, he believes, but he’d like to see the effort expand beyond its borders to the city as a whole. Brede hopes the city’s commitment to sustainable energy will attract a new wave of residents, such as entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses and medical technology developers.

Residents can be engaged in reducing energy use if the city’s successful recycling program is any indicator, he said. Mayo Clinic’s solar-powered visitor’s garage and Rochester Public Utilities plan to add more solar are examples of the direction the city is heading, Brede added.

Getting to net zero energy will not happen overnight, Brede added, but rather be achieved in an “incremental” way over the next decades.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.

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