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For Prairie Woods, energy goal is now a reality

Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center now burns biomass pellets in place of corn. Pictured is Executive Director Dave Pederson. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

SPICER -- The first step toward energy independence was taken by the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in 2004, when it added a corn-burning stove to the lobby of its education building.

The stove still warms the lobby, but it burns wood pellets in place of the corn that originally could be purchased for less than $2 a bushel.

There have been a lot of other changes in the last eight years too. None is as important as the realization at the end of 2011 that Prairie Woods had reached its goal of being 100 percent energy self-sufficient.

Prairie Woods produced more energy than it consumed in 2011, the first year ever, but one year later than had been hoped, according to Executive Director Dave Pederson. It had a net surplus of kilowatts in 2011, which were sold back to the electric grid.

The electrical grid serves as a "battery'' for the nonprofit facility. There are still plenty of times when it must draw electricity from the grid, but overall Prairie Woods generated more than it used last year.

It's come a very long way since locally raised corn replaced propane to provide the warmth and glow that makes the lobby area such a popular gathering place.

Since acquiring the stove, Prairie Woods has become a showcase for the many different renewable energy options available.

It relies on a 20-kilowatt, Jacobs wind turbine and a photovoltaic array of solar panels to produce its own electricity.

It taps local biomass and the free energy of the sun for thermal power to heat its roughly 14,000 square feet of enclosed space. A biomass boiler provides the greatest share of heat for the education and Gary Westby buildings.

Solar water and solar air collectors are also at work, warming the air and providing hot water.

The biomass is acquired from a Bird Island firm working to promote the use of agricultural residues as a source for heating fuel.

Prairie Woods uses its own electricity to charge an all-electric pickup truck. It also produces its own soy diesel.

The variety of renewable energy sources is attention getting, but Pederson said we should not overlook the importance of energy conservation. Prairie Woods could not have reached its goal of being self-sustaining without its commitment to conservation, everything from adding insulation to using incandescent lights.

Tapping renewable energy resources means the center is "carbon neutral,'' one of its goals along with being 100 percent self-sustaining.

Pederson said there are benefits to reducing our reliance on imported fossil fuels, and those mined from our own lands. Burning coal to produce electricity is responsible for the widespread distribution of mercury in the environment. Coal used for electric generation is also the major source for the carbon dioxide implicated in climate change.

Being part of the solution rather than the problem was only made possible by the support Prairie Woods has received from its many supporters, such as the Kandiyohi Power Cooperative and Kandiyohi County, Pederson noted. He said the support was critical with providing the upfront financial assistance needed to make the projects possible.

While the payback on some types of renewable energy systems can be 20 years, Pederson said that investment should be put in perspective. He asks: What is the "payback'' to the consumer from their monthly utility and fuel payments?

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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