The Greening of State Parks
By: Britt Aamodt
May through October, the Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle State Recreation Area is the place to be if you’re hankering for the wide open, wheels registered for off-road and a stomach for high adventure.
Over 1,200 acres in the heart of Minnesota mining country throws together scramble areas, hill climbs, a 4X4 rock crawl and 36 miles of rugged trail for the all-terrain and off-highway vehicle.
And in the midst of this gear-grinding, gas-guzzling trail riding you’ll find a test site for energy conservation and renewable energy that will be used throughout the Minnesota State Parks system.
So in between rock crawls and four by fours, you can slip into the adjoining Net Zero Energy Learning Lab for a real-time assessment of the site's solar energy production versus energy consumption, and a demonstration of how Minnesota's state parks are attempting to reach a goal of reducing energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2015.
Throughout 2010 and 2011, you may have noticed a greening at your local park that had nothing to do with spring foliage.
Solar panel arrays and wind turbines were added to a number of sites in the beginning stages of what the DNR and its Parks and Trails Division (PAT) hope will be an ongoing initiative at all its 66 parks and six recreation areas to reduce energy use, increase clean energy production and educate the public on ways to use energy in a future that for all of us, by necessity, will be a lot greener.
“It only makes sense that the conservator of a large portion of Minnesota's natural areas would want to lead the push for energy conservation and renewable energy. After all, the business and brand of the DNR and PAT is the great outdoors,” says Peter Hark, operations manager for PAT.
A number of conditions conspired to make now an optimal time to take a leap into a clean energy future.
"For one, we want to lessen our footprint on the natural environment. But the other is we're challenged with budgets. This is an effort to reduce operational budgets," he says.
It's no surprise to anyone who's filled a gas tank lately that energy costs are increasing. Pundits argue over how long we can run the world's economy on fossil fuels. But the one thing everyone agrees on is that fossil fuels are finite.
This is a big, global issue felt locally and monthly in a park's energy bill. June 2011, the DNR and PAT released a Renewable Energy and Conservation Report that included assessments of 12 PAT facilities currently generating electric power through solar or wind power.
Fort Snelling State Park, one of Minnesota's most visited destinations, had a photovoltaic roof mount installed in 2011. It's estimated that annually the mount will produce 4,700 kWh of clean energy. Compare that to the 18,200 kWh consumed at the site over a 15-month period. That means Fort Snelling is still buying a good chunk of their energy but reducing the cost by nearly a quarter. It also reduces carbon dioxide.
A better example of cost reduction through clean energy is Afton State Park. Between December 2010 and May 2011 its photovoltaic ground mount generated 5,620 kWh, 1,410 kWh in excess of the energy consumed on site, which allowed the park to sell its excess back to the power company. The early numbers look good.
Hark says they were fortunate to partner with Xcel Energy, which provided the money that fueled the first phase of solar installations, and to be granted $957,500 from the Legacy Amendment to support the second phase.
"Our third goal with these initiatives is to share them with the public," says Hark. In 2008, Minnesota state parks hosted over 8 million visitors. That's a lot of outreach to the public, who will be able to read interpretive plaques set up to explain how solar and wind power convert to usable energy and to participate in demos and programs organized by park naturalists.
"When state park visitors see a new solar array or an interpretive kiosk, we're hoping that spurs them to ask more questions. We're creating a website that will show what it might cost them to put these systems in place in their own home or business," says Hark.
More changes are cropping up: the installation of better lighting systems, the use of electric fleet vehicles and continuing analysis and application of energy efficiencies throughout the park system.
"The overall public response has been good. When I told a group about what we're doing," says Hark, "they just said, 'Why didn't you start sooner?'"