2016 Finalist

This project has been selected as a finalist in the Environmental Education category:

Saint Paul Ecodistrict

Project Summary

The Saint Paul EcoDistrict is a unique sustainability education platform established to provide the public with a free learning experience via the real-life application of environmental innovations. The EcoDistrict was established by a group of civic, non-profit, business, and city government partners who have been actively developing the environmental programs and technologies within their facilities and working to daylight these efforts to increase environmental literacy, engagement, and implementation. These EcoDistrict innovations include, photovoltaics, solar thermal, bioenergy, district energy, combined heat and power, thermal storage, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, advanced heat recovery, recycling and composting – making this one the most concentrated assemblages of sustainability projects in the U.S. All within only a four block, walkable area of downtown Saint Paul.

The platform promotes four educational areas: secondary education curriculum and field trips, public engagement, demonstration projects, and sharing best practices. The secondary school effort is focused on 6-12th grade students who can learn about sustainability through a curated field trip experience. Through a partnership with Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, the partners are developing a formal curriculum that works with the state science standards and leverages the real-life application and hands-on experience of the EcoDistrict. These efforts build from four years of EcoDistrict tours, ranging from Boy Scouts to PHD candidates. This includes groups helping to refine the tour experience, starting with 100 Saint Paul Central High School environmental studies students who toured in spring 2015. Most of these students had never seen solar panels before and were thrilled to learn about how these technologies worked and what jobs opportunities these initiatives might create for them after high school.

The public engagement effort is a multi-faceted approach to educate the general public who visit this area, science-enthusiasts, conference and training attendees, and the Science Museum of Minnesota guests. The goal is to engage these visitors through art and fun. The most prominent effort was the Plume Project (districtenergyplume.com), a series of three temporary art works that transformed the signature District Energy St. Paul steam plume into a canvas for art displays, using projection lighting, coloring, and animation to create an art and science project unlike any other in the world. This showcase created a tremendous amount of public interest and spurred conversations about where our energy comes from and how we can do better in our community. The EcoDistrict is also an anchor for the Saint Paul River Balcony, which Is envisioned to activate people and activity along the river. These efforts will be prototyped through a series of art installations and a festival this September.

Moving forward, the partners hope to build on the existing EcoDistrict initiatives to create additional large-scale demonstration projects that help make this area a living lab, promoting emerging environmental innovation. The long-term projects will vary, but the current focus is on showcasing urban forestry solutions. Additionally, the partners will use the experience with these initiatives to help inform the best practices of other businesses, building managers, facilities, and communities. The first efforts for this work will focus on composting and energy efficiency. The hope is that these combined efforts will inform both the current and next generation of leaders and doers about what is possible when you set ambitious environmental goals and work with partners to make it happen.

Project Website


Project Partners

  • City of Saint Paul
  • Saint Paul RiverCentre, Xcel Energy Center, Roy Wilkins Auditorium
  • District Energy St. Paul
  • George Latimer Central Library
  • Visit Saint Paul
  • Science Museum of MInnesota
  • Public Art Saint Paul, City-Art Collaboratory, and Works Progress
  • Xcel Energy
  • Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation
  • Climate Generation

How did the project partners work together?

The EcoDistrict founding partners, the Science Museum of Minnesota, District Energy St. Paul, the Saint Paul RiverCentre and Xcel Energy Center were drawn together through shared goals to save energy and water, reduce waste, and implement renewables. The City of Saint Paul led the way to implement the partner projects as well as their own sustainability initiatives. When each of the organizations installed solar, the result was seven unique solar installations in a four square block radius, and a sudden interest in learning about development, installation, and performance. The partners informally hosted tours for three years for visitors, industry experts, government representatives, educators, and students. This sparked the idea to use these installations, technologies, and programs to educate others. Visit Saint Paul and the George Latimer Central Library were drawn into the group to help develop the overall concept, explore how to create an improved experience (supported by a web platform), and to invite people to visit and learn in the EcoDistrict. The Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation and Smart Trips joined this effort to develop a placemaking event to introduce the concept to the public and envision how it could become a more vibrant and educational destination. Climate Generation began working with the partners to create an educator curriculum program for the experience, which will be formally piloted later in 2016. District Energy also initiated conversations with Public Art Saint Paul and Works Progress, and the City-Art Collaboratory, which led to the development of the Plume Project through three talented, local artists. Xcel Energy was also a key contributor to the partnership through their work with the tour partners and investments into sustainable technology solutions.

How is the project groundbreaking?

The Saint Paul EcoDistrict is the only destination of its kind in the United States with the density of sustainable technologies and this approach to education through real-world applications. Within this district, there are seven solar installations, district heating and cooling, biomass-fired CHP, and organizations setting the bar for energy conservation and waste reduction. In most cities and facilities, these installations are inaccessible, but the EcoDistrict partners are working to showcase these efforts and use them as an opportunity to increase environmental literacy, innovation, and support for similar initiatives. The EcoDistrict also has the potential to be a training ground for other cities to experience the sustainability and energy initiatives that they would hope for in their own cities. To-date, the EcoDistrict has already been approached by a dozen cities interested in replicating this type of education and sustainability platform. Additionally, the EcoDistri ct hopes to serve as a living lab where emerging technologies, programs, and environmental solutions can be road tested and introduced to the public. With the high traffic nature of the tour partners’ facilities and the location along the river, it is well-poised to draw thousands of people each year to learn about what’s next in sustainability.

What are the project goals?

Together, the EcoDistrict partners are working toward four key education goals: secondary education curriculum and field trips, public engagement, best practices, and demonstration projects. The secondary education efforts are focused on the field trip experience, working with Climate Generation to lead this effort. Schools have already been through to experience the field trip without the curriculum and structure, but the goal is to pilot a first version of this formal experience by fall 2016. The next phase of public engagement efforts are focused on the upcoming civic events that create an opportunity for the community to learn and play, including the Great River Gathering Placemaking residency and the Saint Paul River Balcony Prototyping Festival. There are additional public engagement efforts planned around upcoming conferences, including the Children and Nature conference and the International District Energy Association Conference. Shar ing best practices can take many forms, but the initial focus is expected to be on helping more local restaurants learn about composting and waste diversion. This has been tremendously successful in the EcoDistrict and the organizations utilizing these programs have also saved money. Lastly, the short-term goal is to identify a major demonstration project for 2016-2017 to complement the existing slate of technologies and programs that are already active in the EcoDistrict. Above all, the EcoDistrict partners aspire to have this education and sustainability platform inform and influence current and future leaders to make better environmental decisions and investments. As well as encouraging people to dream up better ways to lessen our environmental impact and invent or improve our sustainable technologies alternatives.

What are the project outcomes?

Each of the partners has made significant strides lowering the carbon and waste footprint of their facility and increasing the use of renewable energy alternatives, as showcased in the projects and programs. Ideally, the continuation of the EcoDistrict work will advance these results even further and hopefully influence other facilities to follow suit to reduce their impact.

Event Details

Thursday, May 25, 2017
5:00 - 5:45 p.m. Registration & reception
5:45 - 8:00 p.m. Dinner & program
8:00 - 9:00 p.m. Dessert & reception 

Nicollet Island Pavilion
40 Power Street
Minneapolis, MN 55401

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Presenting Sponsors

Environmental Lay Group

Great River Energy

Reception sponsor

25th Anniversary Sponsors


Community Action

Critical Collaborator

Stoel Rives LLP

Emerging Leader


Energy and Climate

The Weidt Group

Natural Resources

Sustainable Business

Supporting Sponsors

Minnesota Power

partner SPONSORs

In-kind sponsors


CliftonLarsonAllen LLP

Consulate General of Canada

Rochester Public Utilities

Associate Sponsors

Bremer Bank
G & K Services
Nova Consulting
Smith Partners