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First rural SEU at work

Energy auditor Kevin Hein uses an infrared camera to look at the living room in Erik Thompson's home in Milan to see where heat loss is occurring. The Milan Sustainable Energy Utility brought Hein to town to help interested participants in a home energy conservation workshop analyze their homes. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

As surely as the winter winds howl, residents in Milan send their hard-earned dollars to the far-corners of the earth.

With some exceptions, every dollar that residents of Milan spend to heat their homes this winter will be sent out of the community and, often, right out of the country.

Whether it's oil or propane for furnaces, or coal for electric heat, the fuel sources must all be "imported'' to Milan.

It's believed that a majority of the 173 homes in this rural community rely on fuel oil as their main source of heat.

These are just some of the reasons that Milan has become the first rural community in America to create its own Sustainable Energy Utility.

"We'd like to keep more of the dollars here in the community,'' said Erik Thompson, one of the founders of the SEU and the president of the Sun Prairie Bank in Milan.

It's also why Kevin Hein of Montevideo set up his blower fan and walked around several homes in the community on Oct. 20 with an infrared scanner in hand. Thompson's house was among them.

Hein, a certified energy auditor, came to help Milan residents identify cost-effective ways to weatherize their homes.

A Sustainable Energy Utility is a community-run and not-for-profit organization. It promotes consumer-based renewable energy and conservation. It works with all types of energy sources, whether for heating or transportation, with the goal of creating financial savings for customers.

Milan has been working with Shalini Gupta of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis to organize its SEU.

One of the recent efforts of the SEU has been to educate people about what they can do to reduce their energy usage, said program coordinator Michele Skogrand. The SEU hosted three free workshops for residents, focusing on energy conservation in their homes. Each of the workshops attracted 20 participants -- and led to Hein's visit.

The Milan area SEU had earlier launched a community-wide effort to tell people about the variety of rebates and incentives that utilities offer for energy conservation. Thanks to the initiative, electric supplier Otter Tail Power worked to help the Kviteseid Lutheran Church and three businesses -- Bergen's Market, Billy's Maple Tree and the Sun Prairie Bank -- replace their lighting systems with new, energy efficient lights.

The incentives and rebates represented about two-thirds of the cost for the conversion at the bank, said Thompson. The benefits are a brighter and "warmer" light inside the bank and lower electric bills, he said.

The SEU believes there's much more that can be done in the community. Most of the community's housing stock was built before 1940.

About one third of the community of 300 people is from the islands of Micronesia. The new residents hold lower paying jobs and their homes and appliances are older. The SEU wants to find ways to help them improve their homes and acquire more energy efficient appliances.

The community also has a sizeable population of people age 65 and older on fixed incomes.

The SEU was able to obtain grant funds to launch the initiatives now under way, and is hopeful of doing much more. If resources can be found, the SEU would like to establish a revolving loan fund. It would loan funds for energy improvements. Those improvements could be repaid by the consumer at a rate equal to the monthly energy savings the improvement creates.

Skogrand said the initial cost of making conservation improvements often prevents people from taking them on, even though they know they can pay for themselves in the long run.

A presentation one year ago by Lois Quam on the renewable and green energy opportunities coming to rural areas motivated a citizens group known as the Milan Movers to organize the SEU. They see opportunities for Milan in renewable energy and conservation, noted Skogrand.

The Milan SEU will host its next workshop from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Milan School building. The subject will be the "house as a system'' by Kevin Hein of Koen Energy Services, Inc. The workshop is open to the public and everyone is welcome.

For more information call 320-226-3709.