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Say YES! to a head start in clean energy

As part of a lesson on solar energy during the winter summit, YES! students unfurled a 50-foot-long, black-colored tube of thin plastic and allowed outside air to fill it. As the air in the tube warmed, it expanded and the thin plastic tube soon had lift. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

It was for a practical reason that architect Andrew Bjur of Engan and Associates in Willmar put in the effort to add "LEED certified" to his list of credentials.

It's a competitive market out there. Potential customers value the energy conservation and

environmental standards set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, he explained.

Bjur spoke to an audience of high school students Jan. 12 at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer.

They get it too.

Many of them realize their high school experience with the Youth Energy Summit! program "puts them ahead of the curve'' in their quest for careers, said Cheryl Glaeser, program officer with the Southwest Minnesota Foundation. The foundation is the major sponsor for YES!, which is what brought the students from New London-Spicer, Willmar, ACGC, Litchfield and Eden Valley-Watkins schools to Prairie Woods last week.

Renewable energy is not a fad, but a growing segment of rural Minnesota's economy, noted Glaeser.

Ethanol and wind power development are some of the more visible growth areas, but Glaeser said jobs with a renewable energy focus are available in virtually all professions, whether its architecture, engineering or accounting.

The YES! students spent the day exploring energy and environmental topics with the help of Bjur and others. They are all part of teams that are developing and implementing their own energy conservation or environmental projects in their respective communities.

This is the fourth year that YES! has been offered in the region. There are 18 YES! teams at as many schools, located everywhere from Windom to Ortonville. Anywhere from 200 to 250 students in grades 8 through 12 are participating, according to Glaeser.

There would be more students, if more young people were made aware of the clean energy and environmental challenges and opportunities out there, according to Steph Wiser, a student and team leader for the Eden Valley-Watkins team.

Speaking during a panel discussion at the start of the day, Wiser advocated for a more formal approach in schools to educate students about clean energy and environmental issues. Her "carbon cutting" team averages about 20 students, but should have more, she said.

"It's not for a lack of interest. It's a lack of knowledge,'' said Wiser.

A quest for knowledge

Those looking for knowledge in clean energy and environmental issues could ask for no better place to study than Prairie Woods, according to Glaeser. It offers the students opportunities to examine everything from biomass heating systems, a wind turbine producing electricity, and operating solar, thermal and photo-voltaic solar panels. It's even home to an electric-powered pickup truck.

Anne Dybsetter, YES! coordinator at Prairie Woods, has made her career in environmental education. She appreciates the opportunities provided through YES! most of all. The students are motivated and enthusiastic, she said.

She also appreciates the fact that she can work with the students through the course of the year, and build relationships with them as they develop and launch their projects.

The projects can be very challenging. The Willmar YES! team operates a solar and biomass-heated greenhouse and raises fresh produce in it as part of a local foods initiative. Projects by other YES! teams range from installing solar panels and energy-efficient LED lighting to composting, recycling school wastes and organizing community gardens.

A key component of all the projects is community involvement, and this may be even more important to a student's future than the exposure to career opportunities, said Glaeser. They learn to communicate with the public, build support and tap resources. In the process, they can come to see their hometowns as places to make their own futures.

"The youth are engaged in their communities,'' said Glaeser.

Her hope is to see more business people engaged with the students as well. Along with exposing students to rural-based, renewable energy careers, YES! can also promote entrepreneurism among the youth, she said. Glaeser sees opportunities for students to turn many of their projects into viable business opportunities for their communities.

At the winter summit, the group examined the science and the economics behind renewable energy and conservation, and learned how far we still have to go. Architect Bjur told them how they were able to essentially double the size of the United Lutheran Church in Lake Lillian while reducing its heating needs by 40 percent.

And through a Skype connection to Sweden, the students spoke to the president of the company that developed a biomass unit that provides carbon-neutral heat to Prairie Woods ELC at less cost than propane. Speaking from Gothenburgh, Sweden, Per Carlsson of ABioNova politely told the students that the U.S. is "far from the top'' in terms of developing its biomass potential when compared to the rest of the developed world.

Tom Cherveny

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

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