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LqP Valley greenhouse going up, with help from near, far (with video)

Savanna Nelson staples insulation to the ceiling of the solar greenhouse with help from Morgan Ervin. Lac qui Parle Valley students in Wes Anderson’s agricultural classes are helping construct the greenhouse. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny2 / 2

In the movies the heroes usually swoop in with capes fluttering on their backs or atop trusty steeds galloping at full speed. At the Lac qui Parle Valley High School, they walk over from their classrooms or drive a blue bus powered by used cooking oil. “Some people look at us like we’re crazy,’’ laughed Lesley Heyl, who drove Bettie the Blue Bus. “They don’t know what is going on.’’ They do now at the Lac qui Parle Valley School, where Heyl and Ian Toal drove their cooking oil powered bus all the way from Maine.

Watch: Bettie the Blue Bus video

They arrived on Monday to help science teacher Rachel Rigenhagen’s Youth Energy Summit or YES! Team and construct a passive solar greenhouse on the campus grounds.

The real heroes, insists Heyl and Toal, are the students in Wes Anderson’s agriculture classes. They arrive by the hour to take on the construction duties assigned by the two, who are offering their expertise to get the job done.

Last year, or roughly 14,000 miles ago, Heyl and Toal converted a diesel school bus to run on cooking oil. They have spent much time since traveling about, offering their skills to promote grassroots projects involving alternative energy or sustainable food production.

One of their stops two summers ago was in Montevideo.

They literally rolled into Tim and Shelly Elkington’s farm yard unannounced as the couple and their helpers were scratching their heads wondering how they were going to get their passive solar greenhouse built.

Heyl offers organizational skills and Toal the mechanical know how. He took two weeks away from his job as a solar panel installer to help the Lac qui Parle Valley School get this greenhouse enclosed by Nov. 1.

The 20-foot-by-40-foot greenhouse is all about solar power. During the day, fans will pump the air warmed by the sun into a four-foot deep bed of pea rock. At night, the fans will reverse the process and pull the heat from the rocks.

Solar panels placed atop the greenhouse will provide the power for the fans.

Students will raise cool weather greens in the greenhouse. They will be sold to the school lunch program and served daily to students.

Science instructor Rigenhagen said the school had been able to obtain some grant funds for the project, but not enough to cover its estimated $20,000 to $25,000 cost. The school board agreed to loan the YES! project the remainder needed, to be repaid by the proceeds from the greens sold to the school.

It’s an arrangement that might be hard to sell to a commercial lender, but the real value comes in the educational value, noted Rigenhagen. The greenhouse will offer a wide range of teaching opportunities. Students can learn about everything from the science of solar power to the business of growing foods.

Rigenhagen had heard about how “Bettie the Blue Bus’’ came to the Elkington’s rescue last year, and contacted their local hosts Clean Up our River Environment to see if they would perform another rescue.

Heyl said this is exactly what they like to do. They like to help “fill the gap’’ that keeps people from completing alternative energy projects.

She said they have been impressed by the interest in alternative energy and sustainable foods that they’ve found in this corner of Minnesota, but also noted. No matter where they travel, they generally find that people are concerned about our fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle and open to new ideas.

“It’s so energizing, that’s what it’s about,’’ she said of their work and travels.

As for the energy they found here, she said it was obvious. “These kids are great,’’ she said, pointing to the students working on the greenhouse. “They’re the ones who deserve the credit for this.’’

Tom Cherveny

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

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