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Energy Matters

With furnaces turned off for the season, and gas prices down by more than dollar a gallon, it can be easy to forget how much Central Minnesota’s fortunes can turn on the cost of energy.

But as thousands of households and businesses discovered during a spike in propane prices through the winter of 2013-14, high energy costs can stress household budgets and sap business profits in the space of a single season. A Congressional report on the impact of the propane crisis found that families in the Midwest spent an additional $561 million on propane fuel that winter, compared to the average amount spent over the previous five winters—$71 million more in Minnesota alone.

In fact, energy efficiency is crucial to economic development in the region, according to Don Hickman, vice president for community and economic development at the Initiative Foundation. “The two things that have been most difficult for the private sector to control or predict over the last decade have been health care costs and energy costs,” he said. “So if you can accurately and affordably manage your energy costs, you have a leg up on the competition.” As the following profiles point out, efforts to save energy can be fueled by entrepreneurship, good fiscal policy and even faith. But anything communities, companies and nonprofits can do to cut energy usage yields the same result—a more sustainable energy future for Central Minnesota.

Royalton: Simple Switches Save Taxpayer Dollars

When it comes to stretching taxpayer dollars, Royalton has seen the light. Just one month after the city of 1,242 made the switch from incandescent to LED traffic lights, Mayor Andrea Lauer saw the potential for savings—and a more sustainable city budget—right away. “When I got our first bill after making the switch, we’d significantly reduced our kilowatt hours,” said Lauer, “But more importantly, we cut our bill in half.”

Just a few years since that simple switch, Royalton has added solar panels to capture renewable energy right from the roof of City Hall and an innovative recycling program that keeps waste oil from contaminating area waterways. There’s also a new “dark sky compliance” ordinance that cuts light pollution and lets the stars shine a little brighter over Royalton’s corner of the north woods.
Yet, even as this small town on the Platte River gains regional recognition as a “green” community to watch, Lauer admits that Royalton’s environmentally friendly practices were first fueled by a desire to save money in the wake of the recession. “In 2006 and 2007, cash was flowing, and everything was great, but once the economy tanked, cities large and small were trying to find ways to stretch their dollars,” Lauer said. “There was a lot of buzz in our region about whether energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainability could be a way to jumpstart our local economies, while doing something that would be really good for us.”

Inspired by a series of sustainability-focused community gatherings hosted by the Initiative Foundation, the Southwest Initiative Foundation and the Region Five Development Commission, Royalton started small, performing energy audits on all city buildings. The town switched from incandescent to LED bulbs, which cut kilowatt hours by 16 percent. “That may not sound like a lot, but when you’ve got a general fund of around $150,000 and you can save a few thousand dollars, it’s a great deal,” said Lauer. “Energy costs will continue to go up, but we’ll continue to save.”

At a presentation given by Dan Frank, the Initiative Foundation’s senior program manager for community and economic development, Lauer learned their efforts could qualify Royalton as a “Minnesota GreenStep City,” a voluntary challenge, assistance and recognition program of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and other partners that helps cities achieve their sustainability and quality-of-life goals through a series of best practice policies. Through the program, Royalton learned about a grant opportunity that has helped pay 40 percent of the costs of installing a solar array on top of City Hall, with a unique financing structure that allows the city to lease the roof to a third-party LLC that receives the tax credits and depreciation costs over time. Combined with a $16,000 rebate from Minnesota Power, Lauer said, “the project has cash flowed from the beginning. We pay about $1,500 a year for the solar panels, which save us about $1,600 a year, so it’s budget neutral. And once it’s paid off, the savings are ours.”

Royalton, a partner in the Initiative Foundation’s Thriving Communities Initiative, keeps residents up-to-date on its energy efficiency efforts through a regular e-newsletter that encourages businesses and homeowners to consider solutions of their own. Lauer says the community’s support for Royalton’s energy efficiency efforts seems to have strengthened as the savings add up. “We’ve got people who will say ‘Why on Earth are you doing this?’ But there are many more who tell us this is really cool,” she said. “Either way, we’re in this for the long haul.”

Crosslake Presbyterian: Saving Energy as an Act of Faith

The Bible contains many verses justifying the virtues and eternal rewards that come from caring for the Earth. But as Rev. Roger Grussing has learned from years of leading the Energy Task Force at Crosslake Presbyterian, inspiring a congregation to embrace the long-term value of investing in more expensive energy solutions is often an act of faith.

Since the Brainerd Lakes area congregation opened its first worship facility in 2001, the church’s conservation-minded construction choices have exceeded code requirements—an eco-stewardship ethic that “asks people to let their values weigh more heavily on projects that may not look like a super good deal economically,” said Grussing, Crosslake’s emeritus pastor.

A geothermal system heats and cools Crosslake Presbyterian’s woodsy campus, which includes a new Fellowship Hall dedicated this spring. The church also buys wind-generated electricity from Crow Wing Power and recently activated a 21-panel, 5-plus kilowatt solar array on the facility’s south-facing roof. Installed by the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, an Initiative Foundation partner, the solar panels make it possible for the church roof to soak up nearly 40 kilowatt hours of energy during a cloudless day in May. While a page on the church’s website provides real-time proof of the renewable power the solar panels capture, Grussing says the church may not see a return on that $26,000 investment for another 17 years—a bottom line that made the project a hard sell.

“There was real conflict, because if you look it from a green eyeshade perspective it wasn’t a good pay back,” says Steve Roe, mayor of Crosslake and a member of the congregation. “Energy use is so abstract, but we took it on from the standpoint of a mission that all of us have an environmental responsibility to our neighbors and children, and that the issue is bigger than financial. Being a numbers guy, that’s finally what put me on track with it.” While guests to the church often comment on the solar panels and even compliment the church leadership for their mission, Roe says, Crosslake’s energy efficiency initiatives haven’t enjoyed universal support from the congregation. “It’s an interesting challenge to get people to think about what we’re going to do when fossil fuels run out. It’s not an easy sell.’’

To strengthen the economic case for environmental stewardship—and to prove the value of energy efficiency to the wider faith-based community—Crosslake Presbyterian has taken a data-driven approach to its community decision-making. For instance, when considering whether to sell or develop 10 acres of adjacent forest land, the community calculated what the loss of wooded area would add to the congregation’s carbon footprint, and decided to leave the parcel untouched.

One of just 20 churches nationwide to win a Gold Certified Cool Congregations award for building practices that achieve significant carbon reductions, Crosslake Presbyterian is part of a growing number of faith-based institutions looking at climate change and environmental sustainability as a social justice effort that demands support from the pews. Last year, 77 Minnesota churches took part in a National Preach-In on Climate Change, organized by Interfaith Power and Light, a nationwide environmental stewardship movement with a chapter of its own in Minnesota. Their message got a big boost in June, when Pope Francis released a sweeping 184-page encyclical naming climate change one of the principal challenges facing humanity, and calling for developed countries to curtail consumption of nonrenewable energy.

As for Crosslake Presbyterian’s flock of nearly 100 members, Grussing believes the last decade of discussion about energy efficiency has raised consciousness about conservation. “For any small congregation, there’s a real competition for dollars between hunger and peacemaking and all of the good causes that churches want to be involved in,” Grussing said. “But if you talk about it in the language of ‘giving more,’ that seems to be a tipping point. People start to see that this work does fit their values.”

Ever Cat Fuels: Sowing and Recycling New Sources of Power

Last summer, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to mandate that all diesel fuel sold at the pump contain at least a 10 percent blend of biofuel. While this policy shift toward more renewable energy sources is great news for companies like Ever Cat Fuels, a biofuel producer based in Isanti, Clayton McNeff, Ph.D., the company’s chief science officer, believes the trend could benefit nearly everyone’s bottom line.

“We use 63 billion gallons a year of diesel fuel in the United States, about 40 percent of that for transportation and 60 percent for heating, so it really does touch all of our lives in a very direct way,” he said. “Biodiesel really is a replacement for petroleum diesel that can lower costs for many businesses.”

Ever Cat Fuels, a loan partner of the Initiative Foundation, has been producing three million gallons of biofuel every year since 2009, much of it recycled from grease collected from restaurants and food suppliers, and refined through a proprietary process that requires no additional water or harsh chemicals. “Initially, we were only selling our fuel to petroleum blenders,” McNeff said. “But about three years ago we gained the capability of blending our own product with petroleum and selling it directly. At this point, we’re very engaged with the community and anyone who can take truckload quantities of fuel is a potential customer for Ever Cat.”

While making the shift to other renewables like solar and wind can take time before companies see a return on investment, McNeff points out that “the payback on biodiesel is immediate. We saved one mining operation over $100,000 in one year, because we can sell it to them directly, cheaper than petroleum.” Another mining company that uses Ever Cat’s biodiesel in 40 pieces of off-road equipment, including quarry trucks, front end loaders and drills, praises the product for allowing them to reduce their diesel particulate matter without having to use any additives, an additional savings.

A new focus for Ever Cat Fuels’ future growth is exploring how nonfood crops can be converted to fuel—not to mention a new source of income for Midwestern farmers. “Crops like Camelina and Pennycress are traditionally thought of as weeds, but they’re plants with high amounts of oil in the seeds,” said McNeff, who also serves as the vice president of SarTec Corporation, which holds the patent on the “Mcgyan Process,” the one-step oil to fuel the production process Ever Cat Fuels is built upon. To expand its potential uses, the company is providing the matching funds for a $500,000, three-year U.S. Department of Energy study that includes nine area farmers and student researchers from Anoka-Ramsey Community College to grow and study the alternative crops. “They can be planted as a cover crop or as a winter crop so you could potentially double crop them with more traditional crops like soybeans,” enabling an acre of land to produce food and fuel at the same time.

While fewer than 3 percent of vehicles in Minnesota currently run on diesel, McNeff believes the growth of biofuel technology could change that. “The most important thing people have to remember is when we’re supporting renewables, we’re supporting our children’s future, and our futures, and the environment in a really direct way,” he said. “For us, it’s a combination of both a business and a mission to make the world a better place.”

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