by Carson Gorecki
On Friday, December 16th, the Sierra Club partnered with the Isaac Walton League Midwest Office, Izaak Walton League Austin Chapter, Austin Audubon Society, and the Minnesota Environmental Partnership to host a Clean Energy Tour in Austin, Minnesota. Attended by 30 interested citizens, business leaders, and elected officials, the tour helped illuminate the path away from carbon dependence and towards clean, renewable energy sources such as solar and geothermal. There were three stops on the tour representing the private and public sectors. Each stop and host shared unique and insightful information on the benefits of a move to clean energy.
The tour commenced at the Hormel Nature Center. Opening remarks and introductions were provided by State Director Margaret Levin and Nancy Lange the Isaac Walton League Energy Program Director from the Midwest Office. Nancy was an invaluable source of information during the tour.
Two public officials attended the tour. State Senator Dan Sparks from Austin, a member of the Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee spoke to the importance of the clean energy as well as the grassroots support. Austin City Council Member Roger Boughton was in attendance as well.
Following introductions, Dave Thompson with Austin Utilities presented on the energy efficiency services offered by the utility. Among these services are energy efficiency workshops for homeowners and contractors, commercial and residential Conserve and Save programs, and many other energy saving tips. Austin Utilities has exceeded state efficiency goals as a result of these and other well-designed programs and initiatives. They have committed to a future without the use of coal-produced energy with plans to move off of coal completely during the first half of 2012.
The first stop on the tour was Packer Arena, an ice rink powered by a geothermal installation. Our host was Kim Underwood, the Director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry for the City of Austin. The cost of the system was offset by a grant from Austin Utilities. Kim also emphasized the massive natural gas savings as a result of the installation. Compared to the budget of $50,000 for natural gas at the older arena across town, Packer Arena budgets only $2,000. Not only is this a significant financial savings, but also a big step away from fossil fuel dependence.
The second stop was the home of local resident Mark Owens. Mark had 15 175-watt solar photovoltaic panels installed on his roof early this year. Describing the simplicity and ease of the installation, he talked about how Austin Utilities provided a $7500 rebate incentive, cutting the cost of installation in half. He expects a full payback of his investment in 10-12 years. His system is grid-tied, meaning that any power produced by the panels and not consumed by Mark’s household will go back onto the citywide grid for usage by neighbors. Mark also explained that he is subsequently credited on the next month’s energy bill for the extra production.
The third and final stop brought the group back to the Hormel Nature Center to look at another solar photovoltaic system. Larry Dolphin the Nature Center Director and our host, partnered with Steve Vietor from local Riverland College to talk about the installation. Larry explained that because the Nature Center uses such little energy to begin with, almost all of the power produced by the 3500-watt system is sold back onto the grid, providing clean energy for the city. Larry also talked about how the installation was made possible in part due to Legacy Amendment funds. Steve was on hand to talk about the technical aspects of the installation. Most exciting were the 8 micro-inverters on the back of the panel array. These inverters, he explained, provide an increase in efficiency as well as the ability to monitor the production of the solar array. The panels were manufactured in California and the micro-inverters were made here in Minnesota.
Every site on today’s tour emphasized the economic and cost benefits of their project, as well as the importance of pursuing efficiency first. With their efficiency programs, Austin Utilities is in a great position to help with this need. There is a vibrant community in Austin who are interested in small scale renewable energy systems, and they will need the continued support of their utility to move forward.
Here are some links to local media coverage of the tour: