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Low-cost solar technology proves its power at Prairie Woods ELC

Thanks to solar panels on the southeast wall of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center's education building, the area warms quickly on a chilly February morning. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

SPICER -- A trip up the climbing wall at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center won't quite melt the soles off your tennis shoes, but it's no place for the ancient Greek Icarus and his wings of wax.

By 8 a.m., the temperature at the 32-foot peak is more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit, soon it will hit the 100-degree mark.

Outside, the air temperature hovers just above zero.

All of that heat inside on a cold February morning is captured by solar panels.

Best of all, it doesn't take a rocket scientist or a federal grant to take advantage of it.

All it takes is someone like John Duevel, who loves to tinker. He's designed easy-to-build, inexpensive thermal solar panels that cover the southeast facing wall of the education building.

"John is always up to a good science project,'' said Dave Pederson, director of Prairie Woods.

This project began in November, when Duevel, owner of Three Seasons & More in Willmar, built the solar panels at Pederson's invitation.

His goal wasn't to prove that solar power could do the job. Duevel has known that since the 1970s, when he first began tinkering with solar power technology.

What Duevel and Prairie Woods want to demonstrate is how affordable and practical solar power is. They want to see others copy the technology and add similar thermal panels to homes, schools and businesses.

"Let's demonstrate that everyone can do something,'' Duevel said.

The panels are built entirely from materials available at the local hardware store. The panels require insulation board, and sheets of aluminum and low-cost, clear vinyl. The aluminum is painted with a heat resistant, black paint and enclosed in aluminum frames.

A 4-foot-by-8-foot panel made by Duevel costs about $300 and weighs about 60 pounds.

Along with being simple to make, the panels are neat in appearance and fit right in with the building's architecture, Pederson noted.

They also demonstrate how easily solar power can be retrofitted to existing buildings. The southeast facing wall of the climbing wall might not seem ideal for solar power, but it's working out great. Most of the activity in the building takes place in the morning and early afternoon, when the panels are pumping out their heat.

Two static fans pull the warm air through the panels, and thermostats turn them on and off.

"Everything in here is designed for simplicity,'' Duevel said.

Now that the days are lengthening, the panels are producing more heat than needed for the area. Pederson said the next step will be to find an equally simple, low-cost technique to distribute that heat elsewhere in the education building.

As for Duevel, his next step is to replicate this success story in downtown New London. He's working with the New London-Spicer Youth Energy Summit team to develop identical, low cost panels to heat the Little Theatre building.

Tom Cherveny

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

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