Chatfield forum highlights rural alternative energy projects

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP Guido Wallraven of Saerbeck, Germany, explains how his town has an alternative energy system that is renewable and sustainable.

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP State Sen. David Senjem, standing, along with, from left, speakers Nick Hoverman, Blaine Hill and Guido Wallraven present information on clean energy initiatives during a program held Thursday evening at the Legion Room in the Chatfield Center for the Arts.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Speakers taking part in an alternative energy forum entitled “Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way…How Communities are Using Energy as an Economic Development Driver” at the Chatfield Center for the Arts’ (CCA) Legion Room last Tuesday, Oct. 29, highlighted programs in their communities, which ranged from nearby St. Charles to a small town in Germany.

Guido Wallraven, who attended through an exchange program in which state Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester) has participated, talked about the 150 projects in Saerbeck, Germany, a town of 7,200 inhabitants that has been in community climate protection since 2008.

The forum was hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in cooperation with Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy through the European Recovery Program’s Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. 

Senjem, who has introduced a “Clean Energy First” bill, “which requires utilities to consider clean energy as their first option in planning future electrical generation resources,” welcomed the attendees, explaining that he and a delegation of other interested persons had gotten to tour Saerbeck and witness how Wallraven and the city of Saerbeck aspire to pioneer energy-conserving or energy-reducing projects that are successful enough so as to draw people from other communities to tour them. The projects include wind and solar efforts to reduce reliance on natural gas and petroleum and other fuels that contribute to the town’s carbon footprint, with participation from the community’s residents. 

Wallraven has been serving as technical director for the city of Saerbeck’s climate-smart municipality project since 2009. Now in charge of implementing about 150 individual initiatives that promote and implement local climate protection, he has been working on municipal climate protection issues for over 15 years. He holds an engineering degree in architecture with a specialization on city planning and owns the city planning consultancy Stadt-Land-Fluss-Buro fur Stadtebau und Umweltplanung, which focuses on energy-efficient city planning, sustainable city development, the use of solar energy in cities, and sustainable master planning.

Wallraven shared with the attendees that his city is rural enough that it needed to find alternative energy sources for sustainability of the city and for the future of its citizens. Having traded off petroleum for solar and wind, it chose to establish a system that provides resources for both the city and residents to engage in the use of alternative and renewable energy. 

“Renewable energy is around 250 percent of the energy in Saerbeck…we’ve an investment of $70 million, and about $50 million of that is investments of people living in Saerbeck,” he said. “We sell energy to the German grid, and the money is to be reinvested in the local streets, in the schools.  The task faces everybody living in Saerbeck…we’ve established an energy park, and we have signs on the church, signs on the school with numbers, and when people come to Saerbeck, they see the signs with numbers, and they ask about them.  Even on the church, which is the center of town.” 

Senjem agreed that the German city is facing the future with forward thinking, and Wallraven pointed out that one of the important tenets is that children are taught from kindergarten on that they live in a town powered by clean energy and that that is vital to their own futures, saying, “We’ve found out kids are the best ambassadors for renewable energy.” 

He added that eco-energy tourism brings thousands upon thousands of people to Saerbeck each year to witness the city’s commitment to using electricity production sources that do not pollute the air, soil or water, and while those people dine in the city’s cafes and stay in local hotels, economic growth is simply a pleasant side effect. 

“We have about 30,000 people celebrating at Saerbeck,” he said. “We’ve found that several people want to live in Saerbeck because we’re taking care of the future.” 

St. Charles project has dual benefits

St. Charles city administrator Nick Koverman gave a presentation on “Saving Money for Ratepayers: The St. Charles Innovative Solar Project.” His city’s energy project included putting up its own solar farm just on the edge of town, leaving room underneath for a cover crop to grow to serve as a home for bees and other pollinators. Diversifying a community’s alternative energy portfolio is simply good planning in the effort to meet and exceed the renewable mandate, he noted. 

However, the partnership created also allows St. Charles to receive the benefit of a long-term power purchase arrangement, which in turn helps to stabilize rates since the power is generated locally, which save on the rising cost of transmission.  The pollinator-friendly plantings under and around the panels to reduce runoff, enhance soil health and stability and provide a habitat and food source for pollinators, beneficial insects and wildlife.

Koverman noted that it’s especially important to “make sure you truly believe in the person” who’s leading the work to install a solar park or connect a city to wind power when transitioning to sustainable energy production. He added that the reward lies in knowing that the lights come on in each home and business reliably and renewably, at a lower cost to customers and the environment. 

“With production costs, 65 percent of power in St. Charles is before the meter,” he said.

Morris focuses on future

Morris, Minnesota, city administrator Blaine Hill talked about “The Morris Model for Energy Savings and Environmental Stewardship,” citing that at the center of alternative energy production and consumption are the words “culture” and “future.” With cheap gas and electricity, human beings do not like change and therefore are not given to quickly transitioning to using different resources, but that it is essential that people do so for the children and young people who will be up against climate change. 

“We had a chance to go see where the future (is).  One thing the mayor of Saerbeck said was, ‘We’re not doing this for me or my kids, but we’re doing it for our grandkids.’  I drove here in an electric vehicle,” he said. “Where is the nearest place to charge that?  Is there a charging station in Chatfield?  The city of New York is transitioning all its vehicles to electric, and I heard someone say that they didn’t want to drive an electric car in a chase, but here’s New York City transitioning to all-electric vehicles.  What about converting transit buses in the metro area to electric?” 

Hill informed the attendees that the University of Minnesota-Morris has partnered with schools, hospitals and the county to pilot its energy-efficiency efforts, initially finding that it didn’t do as much strategic planning as was necessary.  However, it established goals – using 80 percent of all power that’s produced locally in the county, reducing power usage by 30 percent and eliminating landfills by 2025 and putting the 40 percent of organic matter placed in landfill garbage to work producing energy – while using a model that incorporates engaging older generations of people who may be given to proceeding with non-renewable energy sources. They were engaged through the introduction of University of Minnesota students who approached the City Council with ideas on how to meet those goals or further educate the public on the need for climate-friendly energy sources. 

“We have cheap natural gas and electricity, but we do not have cheap garbage.  Forty percent of our garbage is organic, and we’re sending it to an incinerator or burying it.  We’re terrible dealing with our refuse.  In Germany, if it’s organic garbage, it’s their duty to sort it out,” Hill said.  “I believe in the future there will be organic vehicles and beyond. 

“And one thing in Saerbeck that’s a pillar of education is that they start in kindergarten teaching kids about (energy).  Soon, there’s a program that brings high school kids from Morris to Germany, and there’ll be kids coming from Fukushima, Japan, too.  It’s all funded by the Germans, except the registration fees.”

Getting buy-in

Senjem said, “I’m impressed with all three sites.  How do you get buy-in?” 

Hill answered, “We had college students come to the City Council sharing information with them, and it’s contagious.  I think it really encouraged the City Council members to open their minds.” 

Koverman registered, “I think knowing where we could go and where it could be…the low cost, too, was how we got buy-in.”

“Places like Xcel are closing down their coal-fired plants, and they’re going to be going through changes, Senjem said. “Prairie Island will likely be shut down. We’re going to be going through changes. It’s about the future, so we need to start now.” 

In closing, the senator took time to ask each person in attendance what they feel needs attention as a means of securing a cleaner future or what they thought of the information they gleaned throughout the evening’s discussions. He was met with comments such as “I agree with the need for education – most of us are not going to be here in 20 to 25 years,” “I want to make sure my grandkids are not going to be pissed at me for not doing anything about it,” “it’s doable,” simply “optimism,” and “I do think it’s going to depend on the youth.”

“The future is now,” Senjem concluded.