Originally published at Ely Timberjay. Photo by John Ratzloff. 

PICKETTS LAKE—This past week, Ely explorer Will Steger showed he could walk-the-walk when it comes to renewable energy.

It is a case of leading by example. For nearly a decade, Steger has focused his incredible energies on raising public awareness of the risks posed by climate change and the ways in which the burning of fossil fuels are contributing to this global problem. Yet, his wilderness outpost located about ten miles outside of Ely had been powered by generators run by propane— a fossil fuel— for many years.

That ended Oct. 7, when Steger flipped the switch on a new 10-kilowatt solar array that now helps power the small community he’s created on the shores of Picketts Lake.

While solar photovoltaics are hardly new technology, Steger said, like many people, he questioned how well they would actually work. “I didn’t realize that I could run my shop and everything else here on solar. That was a real revelation,” he said.

“Now my goal is to run this whole facility 95-percent fossil fuel free.”

It won’t happen all at once, but Steger is someone who has always looked toward and planned for the future. And his shift to renewable energy is timed to coincide with the launch of his new Steger Wilderness Center, a retreat designed to serve as a launching pad for new ideas to shape what’s next. Steger envisions having small groups, of no more than 12 people, who will work with facilitators to develop creative solutions to a variety of human challenges. He plans to host the first pilot session next fall, with three or four sessions to follow in 2017, with significantly more after that. “We want to bring in small groups and use the power of the wilderness as inspiration to solve some of the big problems we face,” said Steger.

At the top of his list is engaging Minnesotans, particularly northeastern Minnesotans, in switching to a clean energy economy. “We’re really focusing on employment here,” he said. “There’s a huge opportunity to create good-paying jobs in clean energy.”

Steger notes that Minnesotans collectively spend between $12 and $15 billion annually on fossil fuels to heat our homes and businesses, power our vehicles, and run lights and other appliances. By investing even a small portion of that into clean energy technologies, such as conservation, wind, and solar, Steger said the job-creation potential is enormous. “There’s over 300 clean energy jobs in northeastern Minnesota already and we’re just getting started,” he said. “This will create tens of thousands of good jobs in Minnesota.”

While concerns over climate change remain controversial with some Americans, Steger said everyone can see the economic benefits of renewable energy and conservation in a state, like Minnesota, that imports 100 percent of its fossil fuels. “What’s important to me is to get these jobs happening. To me, it shouldn’t be a battle over who’s right on climate change.”

While Steger is convinced of the jobs potential of a shift to clean energy, how and when those jobs materialize are questions that he hopes visitors to his new center can begin to work out. “It takes more than a vision,” he said. “It needs to be done in a practical way.”

More power to the people

Steger sees investments in clean energy in northeastern Minnesota as a way to stabilize the economy, by providing good job opportunities, particularly for young people, and by keeping energy dollars that once left the state here at home.

Steger said proposals like the one to develop a biomass facility to provide heat and electricity to local schools, city buildings, businesses, and homes are the kind of innovations that are needed to advance a clean energy economy.

Steger is also looking to add a biomass system at his center to heat the existing facilities as well as a new dining hall currently in the works. He’s also planning to add wind power to get the center through the dark days of early winter when short days and frequent clouds make solar panels less effective. The biomass system would utilize wood scraps from his shop as well as wood derived from regular thinning of the 240-acres of forest that he owns surrounding the center.

Steger also plans to add to his solar array over time. The new solar array that went on line last week includes 40 photovoltaic panels along with a sizable battery bank. It’s meant to serve as a demonstration of what’s known as a “micro-grid,” an entirely independent electrical system that powers a number of buildings. It’s one of the largest independent micro-grids in Minnesota, according to Jon Kramer, CEO of Sundial Solar. The entire system cost between $80,000-$100,000 to design and install, and most of that was covered through in-kind donations from a number of partners, including Minnesota-based companies like Sundial Solar and tenKsolar as well as BAE Batteries USA, Cummins Power Generation, and the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering.

The system will allow the Steger Wilderness Center to operate without the need to bring a power line into his remote location. Bringing a road into his homestead was compromise enough, says Steger. “I would never bring in a power line,” he said.

Planning for the long term

As Steger, now 72, thinks to the future, he’s working to create the framework to continue his mission long after he’s gone. He already has one of his two most recent initiatives, the creation of the organization Climate Generation, running and stable. “Getting the Steger Center up and running is the other piece,” he said. Other than the solar array, Steger has self-financed most of the work toward creation of the center. Once the facilities are running, he’ll focus on defining the center’s programming, developing stable funding sources, and establishing long-term governance that preserves his vision. “My goal is not to own anything,” he said. “This will all go into a trust.”

While his original homestead started on 28 acres, his acquisition of neighboring private parcels over the years has grown the site to 240 acres, all surrounded by public lands where future development is unlikely. “That helps guarantee the isolation of the center,” he said.

That’s important, says Steger, because of the impact that a contemplative wilderness setting can have on small groups working together. “Incredible things can happen in these kinds of surroundings,” said Steger. “I’m convinced that wilderness is the key to finding the inspiration we need.”

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