Blazing 'clean' trail

NEW LONDON -- A brisk wind whips suddenly from the northwest to the southwest, and back again. Not missing a beat, a weather vane keeps a three-bladed Jacobs wind turbine facing into the wind. The blades are perched atop a 120-foot, steel tower, ...

NEW LONDON -- A brisk wind whips suddenly from the northwest to the southwest, and back again.

Not missing a beat, a weather vane keeps a three-bladed Jacobs wind turbine facing into the wind. The blades are perched atop a 120-foot, steel tower, emitting a steady, pinwheel-like whir.

They're spinning at 112 revolutions per minute, David Pederson points out on a digital meter kept in a small building at the foot of the tower.

At the moment, they are producing all of the electricity needed and more to power the Westby Observatory and adjacent, central office and education facilities for the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center. The excess electricity is fed directly into the Kandiyohi Power Cooperative's electric lines and distributed to area farms and homes.

This could be the future for Kandiyohi County, and indeed west central Minnesota.


Pederson, the director of the 500-acre outdoor classroom north of New London, said the region has the resources to produce its own energy in ways that benefit both the environment and the local economy.

There are ample agricultural and wind resources, an educated and skilled population, and institutions such as Ridgewater College that can make it happen, according to Pederson.

"It's something that we all need to take a look at,'' he said of the growing move towards renewable or "green'' energy sources.

Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center is making itself a laboratory to test and demonstrate what Pederson calls "accessible'' renewable energy technologies. The energy systems that both heat and power the operations here are scaled for home and farm use.

Prairie Woods has set for itself a goal of becoming 100 percent energy self-sufficient by 2010.

The 20-kilowatt Jacobs wind turbine began spinning on Dec. 6. Pederson estimates that it will provide 60 percent of the electricity for the facilities during the course of a year. He's hoping to see a smaller, but similar turbine erected to provide electricity for the farm home also located at the outdoor learning center.

By tapping the wind, Prairie Woods is not contributing mercury or carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It is shrinking its carbon footprint by turning away from fossil-based fuels to wind and biomass, he noted.

Prairie Woods is already 90 percent of the way towards local, self-sufficiency in heating its buildings.


It began four years ago, when a room-style corn burner stove was added to the education/office building that also holds the 30-foot tall climbing wall. Pederson said the stove instantly became a magnet for visitors, and the topic for much discussion.

It also became proof of the economic value of renewable energy. The stove quickly paid for itself by reducing the amount of propane the facility had to purchase for heating.

The stove continues to provide warmth and a special ambience for visitors who gather around it after hikes through the surrounding prairie and woodlands.

If the truth is told, it is a corn-fired boiler system located outside that provides the majority of the heat for the two main buildings, said Pederson.

Operating the corn-fired systems has taught a lesson. Renewable systems require more attention and tending than do fossil-fuel systems, said Pederson.

The economics are still being learned. Corn prices have nearly doubled from four years ago when the first stove was installed. Pederson said the cost for heating with corn is still lower than with propane, which continues to be used as a supplemental heat source.

What should also be considered, he said, are the benefits that renewable energy provides the local economy. "I'd much rather write a check to the local farmer,'' he said.

And when possible, Prairie Woods is looking for ways not to have to write a check. It cost $52,000 to install the wind turbine. Prairie Woods received help from Kandiyohi County, Kandiyohi Power Cooperative, and Great River Energy.


The power it produces offsets the electricity Prairie Woods purchases at retail prices. Under a separate agreement, its excess power is being purchased by Kandiyohi Power Cooperative under a wholesale contract.

Eventually, Prairie Woods expects to pay for the system and realize the benefits of the "free'' energy of the wind.

It also has a portable solar panel on site. Pederson said they'd like to see solar panels erected on the south-facing walls of the education building.

An outdoor, air heat source pump works to take advantage of the energy in the atmosphere to heat the farm home. When outside temperatures plunge, a corn burner stove makes up the difference.

Pederson said reaching the first 75 percent of energy independence from outside, fossil fuel sources has been relatively easy. Now comes the hard part.

The next step is to take a look at the energy used for transportation. Prairie Woods will begin producing its own bio-diesel to fuel its mower, snow plow, and diesel truck. It has a $3,000 unit that can turn soybeans into 45 gallons of clean burning fuel in about a day's time. The manufacturer suggests that the fuel will cost about 70 cents per gallon to produce.

Eventually, Pederson said it's possible that a bio-diesel generator could serve to produce electricity when the wind isn't blowing.

Prairie Woods is also paying attention to the other side of the energy equation: Conservation. It includes the obvious, such as making sure buildings are well insulated, heating is controlled by programmable thermostats, and energy-efficient lighting is used. Prairie Woods has also reduced the fuel needed for mowing by restoring native prairie grasses to some areas.


Prairie Woods hopes to help chart the course to the future, but Pederson said what is happening here is anything but futuristic. The technology is off-the-shelf and comes with a proven track record. Jacobs wind turbines have been produced in Minnesota for 70 years, he pointed out.

And, conservation and self-reliance is exactly what the native peoples who lived here for some 8,000 years practiced, as did the early white settlers, he added. In more recent times we've been lulled by a credit card mentality, he said, ignoring the long-term economic and environmental impacts of relying on fossil fuels imported from distant places.

He said experiments with locally raised, renewable fuels and wind power show that economic and environmental stewardship can go hand-in-hand. Judging by the interest Pederson hears from the many visitors to Prairie Woods, he said there is no doubt about which way the wind is blowing. There is lots of enthusiasm for making the change to clean, renewable energy sources, he said.

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