Weather Forecast


Renewable energy a growing concern

Global warming. We've all heard of it. The signs of it are everywhere, as the cumulative effect of excessive fossil fuel use creates a "blanket" of carbon gas that is changing the ecology of the entire planet.

"We took a wrong turn around the start of the (20th) century, when we began using fossil fuels to power everything," said David Winkelman of Winkelman's Environmen-tally Responsible Construction, in his opening remarks at a forum on "Renewable Energy and Green Technology," held Thursday at Minnesota State Community & Technical College-Detroit Lakes.

Winkelman, whose Brainerd company specializes in environmentally friendly, energy efficient technologies, is the founder of The WATER Foundation (TWF), a conservation technologies education organization started in 1986.

His 90-minute presentation focused on the use of wind energy as an alternative source of electricity to power private homes. He also sang the praises of solar energy and geothermal heating systems, which when used to heat, cool or provide electricity to private homes, can access a wide range of federal, state and local incentives to help fund initial startup cost.

But Winkelman is just one of many area residents who specialize in such "green technology." The White Earth Land Recovery Project centers much of its programming around developing renewable energy and sustainable living practices.

Two Land Recovery staff members, John Shimek and Carly Thomsen, recently completed an energy plan for the White Earth Tribal Council and community that they hope will become a model for sustainable living and renewable energy use in other areas of the country, as well as on the White Earth Reservation itself.

"Current forms of energy production are not sustainable, and are environmentally harmful," said Thomsen, noting that coal-based energy causes both air and water pollution, and dependence on imported oil can influence, and sometimes even shape, U.S. foreign policy.

The 60-page energy plan, which was completed a little over a week ago, focuses on ways that White Earth and the surrounding region can incorporate various forms of renewable energy and sustainable living into the local economy.

Shimek noted that WELRP executive director Winona LaDuke "has had great dreams of (developing sustainable living practices) ever since I can remember. There is a great deal of time, talent and money invested in this by White Earth Land Recovery, as an organization."

One of the most exciting possibilities lies in the development of wind energy.

The White Earth Tribal Council recently secured a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to erect an industrial-sized wind turbine on the reservation.

According to Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor, the council is currently looking at two potential sites for the turbine. Depending on which site is chosen, the turbine would be used to power either the Shooting Star Casino & Event Center in Mahnomen, or tribal government facilities in White Earth, she added.

"We have yet to decide which site is the most effective and efficient for us to use," Vizenor continued. The tribe is also in the process of ironing out energy use agreements with area power companies.

'Those details haven't really been discussed yet," she said.

Mike Triplett of the White Earth Tribal Planning Office has been the tribe's "point man" on the project, Vizenor noted.

"I will be going to Washington (D.C.) in the near future to work further on this project," she added. "So far we've been able to conduct all the foundation work (for the grant) over the phone."

But that is about to change. The construction and implementation of the wind turbine is expected to cost the tribe approximately $3 million.

"The tribe will need some additional funding," Vizenor said, but added, "It will be accomplished."

But that's only one possibility for harnessing wind energy in Becker County and beyond.

During his presentation at MSCTC on Thursday, Winkelman talked about how smaller-scale turbines can be used to power private homes and farms.

"The energy in the wind is free, and that free fuel is harvestable, abundant and consistent," Winkelman noted in a handout distributed to those in attendance at Thursday's presentation. "Wind power can be harnessed for electricity or water pumping in numerous ways. Wind power is a safe, effective, cost efficient and environmentally responsible way to provide energy for all of our society."

Winkelman said his company had installed a small (under 100 kilowatts) wind turbine on the John Purcell farm, located on the White Earth Reservation, in January.

"We did another one by Twin Valley," he added. "It's one of the least expensive ways to get started with using renewable energy. There's free fuel blowing up there (in the sky) every day."

The estimated "turn key" package price for installation and equipment on a small wind turbine is about $51,550. However, Winkelman noted, there are many grants and low interest loans available at the federal, state and local government level, and even from area banks to help fund construction.

In addition, he said, the average turbine will pay for itself within 7-10 years through energy cost savings.

But wind energy is just "scratching the surface" when it comes to green technology, Winkelman added.

Solar power and geothermal heat are also becoming increasingly popular.

"We believe by promoting conservation practices and installing environmentally responsible technologies that have a good return on investment, we will both reduce pollution and help build new, sustainable economies," Winkelman said, discussing the premise upon which his company was founded.

This intent is quite close to the stated goal of the WELRP to "to investigate options for our tribal economy and community, seeking an affordable, culturally and ecologically sustainable and economically vital energy economy for the White Earth reservation."

In the executive summary to their energy plan, Shimek and Thomsen recommend 12 actions for the tribe and reservation as a whole, including approval of "an overall renewable energy standard for the White Earth Reservation, and a set of goals for energy use within reservation borders, including fuel, heating and electricity."

Other goals set forth in the plan include establishing a tribal energy act and a tribal utility modeled on other tribal utilities developed nationwide, and developing a tribal energy efficiency program aimed at reducing tribal heat, electricity and fuel consumption.

Shimek noted that White Earth Land Recovery is currently trying to establish a new program where tribal members who qualify for energy assistance can have solar heat collectors installed in their homes, free of charge.

"There's an average 20-25 percent savings on heat costs with the collectors," he said. "They're really good."

The plan also includes provisions for establishing wind energy, bio-fuel and energy efficiency programs on the reservation.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454