An outpost of reason in a county of conservatives

That’s my town!

Unfortunately, they cropped out the university, which would be to the left of the top of the photo. I say unfortunately, because it comes from an article that’s all about how the University of Minnesota Morris’s Green Initiative has benefited the entire region.

The farm town of the future is visible long before you reach the city limits, thanks to a pair of wind turbines rising as high as the Statue of Liberty above the flat terrain. They pump cheap electricity into the local grid, providing the energy to make carbon-neutral fertilizer. Closer in, cows graze next to solar panels that provide them with shade. A county-wide compost operation disposes of food and agricultural waste, electric buses take kids to school, the public library relies on geothermal heating and even a city-owned liquor store has rooftop solar panels. (The shop motto: “We chill your beer with the sun.”)

Where is this environmental Nirvana that’s checking off so many boxes on the climate warrior’s wish list? Denmark? Germany? Northern California? No, it’s Morris, Minn., population 5,206, a conservative prairie community in a conservative rural county that favored Donald Trump by 22 points in the 2020 presidential election.

It’s fair to say that environmental and climate concerns have never been front of mind when it comes to votes and policies in Morris. But residents will talk all day long about rural self-sufficiency, high energy and fuel costs, saving tax dollars and eliminating costly inefficiency and waste. When Troy Goodnough, the director of sustainability at the local campus of the University of Minnesota, arrived more than 15 years ago and asked how he could help address those economic concerns, a partnership emerged that has made Morris one of the most sustainable farm towns in America—even though that was never the town’s goal.

They know that Trump hates wind turbines, but it’s all about the money.

Goodnough’s bet was that the common-sense, cost-saving goals the farmers prized could lead them to choices that also happened to be good for the environment. But could it really be as simple as changing the terms of that conversation? Yes, says Blaine Hill, the recently retired city manager who helped make it happen. “We never made it about climate. We just did it because it makes sense. And the more we did, the more we wanted to do.”

The result has been dubbed “the Morris Model” by its participants: the town, the school district, Stevens County and the campus of 1,500 students. They are making their data and blueprints available to other communities interested in trying something similar. Thirteen other towns in Minnesota are at various stages of adapting Morris Model projects. The one furthest along is spearheaded by the city of Fergus Falls, with the help of a regional planning nonprofit. They are organizing 10 other rural towns into a “solar cohort” to increase purchasing power and simplify the complex grant process to get state and federal aid for these efforts.

Goodnough sensed an opening. The Morris city government had a tight budget, and its high electric bills were a sore spot. The university, meanwhile, had just realized substantial savings by converting old lighting on campus to modern LEDs. Goodnough offered to help the city do the same, including help with tapping into Department of Energy funds to offset the upfront costs. The conversion ended up saving the city $80,000 a year—a significant windfall for a small town. Soon, the Morris town elders came to the university to ask, “What’s next?”

The larger community might be conservative, but it’s the liberals and progressives of the university that got it all started. You’re welcome, Republicans.


  1. stevewatson says

    I’ve long thought that there’s a certain kind of (fiscal) conservatism that ought to be friendly to environmental concerns — the kind of common sense required to run a small business, keeping careful track of your inputs and outputs, including capital degradation, with the intent of leaving it to your children and grandchildren, i.e. sustainable for the long term. Unfortunately, that kind of conservatism has been drowned out by the howling of knee-jerk populist tribalism that serves only the ultra-rich.

  2. Snarki, child of Loki says

    Is Morris sitting on top of the next supervolcano?

    Or is this just “ground-source heat pump” getting mislabeled?

  3. numerobis says

    The larger community might be conservative, but it’s the liberals and progressives of the university that got it all started. You’re welcome, Republicans.

    They know. That’s why they keep trying to defund education, especially university-level.

  4. gijoel says

    Meanwhile the conservative opposition in Australia has put forward the bold stupid plan of going nuclear.Said announcement has not costings, is only four pages long, and was riddled with lies. I’ve always wondered why the right is so fascinated with nuclear power. Turns out it’s a stalking horse for the coal industry to stop renewables.

  5. nomdeplume says

    Sad comment “environmental and climate concerns have never been front of mind”. Energy companies and right wing media have been so successful in demonising any suggestion we should take care of the only world we can live in.

  6. microraptor says

    nomdeplume @8: Reminds me of a political cartoon I saw many years ago where someone is saying “but what if global warming isn’t real and we end up creating a better world for no reason?”

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