We had a full and productive summer. Between June and September, we hosted an active Resident Program, Service Learning projects and Apprentices. Vital work by all of these groups helped the Center move closer to our goal of hosting our first leadership retreat pilot in the fall of 2016.

This year, our summer residents were students and recent graduates from Saint John’s University and the College of St. Benedict. Their energetic and tight-knit community contributed to many important construction projects that required mastery of working in the Center’s woodworking shop, building stonewalls ands stairways and framing up of the new washhouse. We welcomed the Conservation Corp of Minnesota, Climate Generation’s Yea! MN youth program, students from Face to Face Academy Charter School and the E-Club at Cambridge Community College. Skills development takes place at the same time as experiences that build self-reliance, problem solving, discipline and respect for the environment.

Thanks to all who came to experience the wilderness and contribute to the success of the center in the summer of 2015.

Photo by John Ratzloff.

25 years ago, Will Steger and five other team members from five countries traveled 3,700 miles across Antarctica by dogsled. In a grueling trip with the coldest temperatures on earth, the team raised worldwide attention around the preservation of Antarctica. This trip would be impossible today due to the loss of ice.

Together, they worked to ensure that the existing Antarctic Treaty be reconfirmed. The participating treaty nations added an environmental protocol and a 50-year ban on mining. Because of this, Antarctica is protected from mineral exploration and preserved for science and research. The explorers, together with their support team, formed bonds that would last a lifetime.

This October, with the launch of the book Think South: How We Got Six Men and Forty Dogs Across Antarctica, four of the expedition members returned to Minneapolis for a reunion. Written by the Trans-Antarctica Expedition Executive Director Cathy de Moll, Think South was featured at Talk of the Stacks at the Hennepin County Library to an overflowing crowd in honor of the 25-year anniversary of the expedition.

The historic work of the team is still important today. As they share these stories and first-person accounts, they help ensure that the next generation is educated and work to reduce global warming.

Both Think South and the newly reissued North to the Pole are available for purchase online.

Photo courtesy of the Friends of the Hennepin County Library.

IMG_0625The email message from Will contained one line: HAVE YOUR STUDENTS BRING RAIN GEAR. For the last ten years students from the Cambridge campus of Anoka Ramsey Community College have donned a variety of gear at the Steger Wilderness Center for a wide range of volunteer activities. These students, in groups as large as 20, make their way to the Steger Center from the Ethics class taught by Peter Wahlstrom, who saw Will’s ongoing project to turn his Homestead into a wilderness institute as a great Service Learning opportunity.

Last weekend students from Wahlstrom’s Ethics class were joined by students from the campus environmental club – ‘e-club’ – to tackle a number of projects. On Friday in a steady cold drizzle students spent the morning quarrying rock and the afternoon digging holes for planting trees. On Saturday the sky began to clear and by noon the autumn sun shone down on glad hands and busy feet as they spread mulch, hauled dirt, and made firewood.

Two full days of outdoor manual labor in sometimes less than ideal conditions can make for a trying experience, but the students from Cambridge campus were undeterred. They are inspired by the achievements of Will Steger and captivated by his vision of a cleaner, simpler world. There is also talk of how good that sauna will feel at the end of the day.

Over the years several of these service learning students have expressed their desire to return to the Steger Center, motivated now by passion rather than a grade. Some of those students end up joining the e-club, which makes regular visits to the Steger Center throughout the year, while others who show great promise end up being selected as interns for the summer residency program.

Whether it is for only a weekend, or several weekends, or an entire summer, the Steger Wilderness Center provides the students at Cambridge campus a unique opportunity to engage in authentic, hands on learning, for a life affirming cause they can feel passionate about. For many, they have finally found a place in the world worth fighting for, and when they return home they are not the same. This is education at its finest.

By Peter Wahlstrom

Media Contact
Joanne Henry
henry@neuger.com
612-664-0709

Will Steger to Speak and Reissue Book at Hennepin County Library’s Talk of the Stacks on Tuesday, October 20

Think SouthMINNEAPOLIS, MINN. (October 19, 2015) – Pioneering arctic explorer Will Steger and author Cathy de Moll will be featured speakers on Tuesday, October 20 at 7 p.m. at Talk of the Stacks at the downtown Minneapolis Hennepin County Library with the release of de Moll’s book Think South: How We Got Six Men and Forty Dogs Across Antarctica. De Moll was the executive director and organizer of the Trans-Antarctica Expedition team that included Steger and five other explorers from five countries. Steger’s book North to the Pole will also be reissued and available for purchase and autographing at the event. Both books were published by the Minnesota Historical Society.

In addition to Steger, de Moll will be joined on stage at the event by co-leader Jean Etienne of France. Other expedition members will be in the audience.

North to the Pole is a direct account from Will Steger of the first dogsled expedition to the North Pole without resupply in 1986.

The program, held at the Hennepin County Library in downtown Minneapolis, is free and open to the public. Seating is on a first come, first served basis with doors opening at 6:15 p.m. and program beginning at 7:00 p.m.

More information about Will Steger and his work at the Will Steger Wilderness Center can be found at www.stegerwildernesscenter.org.

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.”

Originally published at the St. Thomas newsroom. Photo by John Ratzloff. 

ELY, Minn. — Fifty-one summers ago, a 20-year-old student enamored with the wilderness hitchhiked back to Minnesota after a 3,000-mile kayak trip in northern Canada and Alaska to start his junior year at St. Thomas. On his way home, he stopped in Ely and made a $25 down payment on a $1,000 purchase of 28 acres of land several miles northeast of town near the newly formed Boundary Waters Canoe Area. He found a rocky ridge in the almost impenetrable brush overlooking Pickett’s Lake, set down a log and said, “This is where I am going to build my cabin.”

Will Steger built that cabin by hand, all 250 square feet of it, clearing the land with a double-bladed axe and a chainsaw, heating his new home with a wood-burning stove and using kerosene lamps for light. What he called the Homestead slowly began to take shape, and over the next five decades he expanded the cabin and his holdings to include 240 acres dotted with a lodge, a wood shop, a sauna, a root cellar, an ice house, gardens, 16 sleeping cabins, a 270-foot well and a mile-long gravel road that connected him with civilization.

But something always was missing for Steger: freedom from the propane and diesel generators that provided the power for his compound and allowed him to pursue his many interests as an arctic explorer, educator, writer, photographer, conservationist and leading voice on the impact of global climate change.

The freedom finally arrived last Wednesday when Steger flipped a switch to activate what he believes will be the largest stand-alone, carbon-free power system in Minnesota. The microgrid, powered today by solar panels and eventually to include power from the wind and biofuels, will supply energy for the Homestead and a crown jewel 27 years in the making: the Steger Wilderness Center, a five-story, 5,000-square-foot building made of recycled wood, native timber and stone, and glass.

Friends, volunteers and representatives of companies that contributed solar panels, batteries and a backup diesel generator joined Steger for Wednesday’s ceremony. Also present were Dr. Greg Mowry, a St. Thomas associate professor of engineering who designed the power system, and Katelyn Jacobsen, an electrical engineering major helping Mowry develop a communication system to remotely monitor the microgrid.

“This is an incredible day for me,” said Steger, 71, who has three degrees from St. Thomas: a Bachelor of Arts in geology (1966), a master’s in education (1969) and an honorary doctorate (1991). “I have dreamed of this for so long. We finally will be able to run our facilities with renewable energy.”

“Inspiration” was the word used both by Mowry and Jon Kramer, founder and chief executive officer of Sundial Solar, to describe why they became involved in the project.

“Will is famous, and people pay attention to what famous people say,” said Mowry, who first met with Steger in early 2014 to learn about his desire for a microgrid. “An effective way to get the message out on the importance of alternative energy was to support Will’s vision.”

“As time goes on, you will see microgrids such as this deployed not only throughout the state but throughout the world,” said Kramer, whose Edina firm donated and installed the solar panels that make up the microgrid’s first phase. A Bloomington firm, tenKsolar, also is a partner in the project. “This will help extract us from the dependence on fossil fuels. As I like to tell people in my industry, ‘Let’s let the fossils rest in peace.’”
Mowry also was enticed by the potential to involve students like Jacobsen – an involvement that will reap benefits far beyond practical learning.

“This type of project allows me to tie those students in and also see a vision for the future,” he said. “Too often we take things around us – our energy systems, fossil fuels, petroleum – for granted. We don’t even think about the implications because power plants in South Dakota are out of sight, out of mind. It’s edifying to be part of this process … and then handing it down to students who will be doing great things after we are long gone.”

How the system works

Designing power systems is fundamentally “simple,” Mowry said, but there were additional challenges with Steger’s project because of the Homestead’s remote location in a wilderness with bitterly cold temperatures and short winter days of sunlight.

Direct current from the solar panels runs through underground cables into an inverter and is converted into 10 kilowatts of alternating current, explained Todd Yurk, chief technical officer for Sundial. The current then is funneled into 46 batteries donated by BAE Batteries of Somerset, Wisconsin.

More than 40 solar panels will provide power for the Steger Wilderness Center and other buildings on the 240-acre site. Steger shows guests the atrium space on the main level of his five-story, 5,000-square-foot wilderness center.

The batteries provide the power to Steger’s wood shop, where a worker was using large saws to cut oak strips for flooring in the wilderness center. More batteries will be added when another 40 solar panels are installed, providing a total of 20 kilowatts of power. The final phases will include a wind turbine and the use of biofuels.

While Steger will rid himself of his propane generators, a new diesel generator donated by Cummins Power Generation of Columbus, Indiana, will provide power during emergencies or periods when solar energy production is insufficient to maintain the batteries.

Yurk called the power system “a groundbreaker” in alternative energy, and Kramer believes it will be the first true microgrid in Minnesota because of the way it will incorporate multiple sources of energy. Steger is pleased that the system, which has cost an estimated $250,000 so far, will become a demonstration model for others to emulate.

Steger Wilderness Center

The microgrid also is timely because it will allow Steger to more efficiently complete the wilderness center, which he has funded through earnings as a writer, speaker and explorer who led the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without resupply in 1986. Four years later, during the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica, Steger designed the center during evenings in his tent (and his original sketch of the center still hangs over the wood-burning stove in his cabin).

Steger envisions the center as a place where business leaders and policymakers can get away from everyday surroundings to discuss important issues and come up with solutions to resolve societal problems. Visitors to the center are awestruck by its simplicity and beauty, rising amid pines and other trees that Steger has planted; from the third-floor and fifth-floor decks, one looks out over literally miles of forest in every direction.

After he finished with tours of the center, Steger wandered down to Pickett’s Lake, which is part of his property, and sat on a dock near one of three floating sleeping cabins. It was a crisp fall afternoon, the sun beginning to recede in the west, and he reflected about a journey that began 51 summers ago when he kayaked to his new property.

“Today was my first official public launch of the center,” he said. “I always have kept the project close because it felt so private, but not today. I always have been a public person because of my explorations, but I survived them because I always had this wilderness retreat to return to.”

Originally published at Midwest Energy News. Photo by John Ratzloff. 

For decades, polar explorer and climate change activist Will Steger had the idea of building an off-the-grid conference center next to his tiny wilderness cabin outside of Ely.

He’s closing in on achieving that long-held goal as workers put finishing touches on a 5,000 square foot, five story Steger Wilderness Conference Center that will be powered by a microgrid – the largest in Minnesota – composed of technology donated by mainly Midwest companies.

Steger designed the timber and masonry building, with a glassy atrium area, to fit northern Minnesota’s extreme climate. “We’re probably 85 percent of the way there,” he said in a phone interview from his downtown St. Paul houseboat. The microgrid, he noted, was unveiled last week at the conference center.

Steger, 70, is perhaps Minnesota’s best known climate advocate, having given hundreds of presentations over the past decade that showcased melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels and the detrimental effects of global warming.

In 1986 the explorer led the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without re-supply. Two years later he led a south-north traverse of 1,600 miles of Greenland, a journey that set the record for the longest unsupported dogsled expedition in history.

Other expeditions led the National Geographic Society to award him prestigious John Oliver La Gorce Medal for Accomplishments in Geographic Exploration, in the Sciences, and Public Service to Advance International Understanding. No one else in history has received the award in all three categories.

His articles have appeared in National Geographic and several other publications, and he has authored four books. In addition, he started programs in education and adventure learning at Hamline University and the University of St. Thomas.

The goal of the conference center, he said, is to bring together leaders – business, political and social – to address climate change issues in a wilderness setting. No more than nine to 12 people will attend conference at any one time “because with that number everyone can be included and you’ll get a much higher level of interaction,” he said.

The center will both house participants and have conference rooms available for meetings. The setting should encourage discussion and innovation.

“The wilderness offers a strong dynamic for small groups and should help us build partnerships among the participants,” Steger said.

Members of the public who want to see the center may be out of luck for now. Steger predicts it can only be open to a wider audience on rare occasions because it sits in a “very sensitive” wilderness area overlooking a lake. Several pilot conferences will be held as the center reaches completion, with a potential focus on the Clean Power Plan.

Going renewable

Steger, who began developing the center in the 1980s, had always hoped for it to exist off the grid with its own power sources and system. The nearest power line is miles away, he said, and he wanted to put into play his long-standing support for renewable energy.

To that end he lined up several experts, among them St. Thomas School of Engineering Associate Professor Greg Mowry, a microgrid expert who is helping develop the system.

The backbone power source will be solar photovoltaic panels from Bloomington-based tenKsolar that have been installed by be Sundial Solar. Currently those panels produce 10 to 12 kilowatts (kW), with plans to collectively have 20 to 30 kW of solar power, said Mowry.

The microgrid employs two other elements: A BAE Batteries USA battery pack that cycles on and off as needed and a backup diesel generator from Cummins. A series of biofuel blends – from B-20 to B-100 – will be tested in the generator to see how they perform, he said.

Jon Kramer, chief executive officer of Sundial, said he’s looking at other Minnesota-manufactured solar panels to add in the future, among them Silicon Energy. That company has a manufacturing plant in Mountain Iron, not far from Ely, he said.

“The whole idea is that this is a demonstration project to show that (microgrids) can be done,” he said. “It blows my mind what we’re doing, it’s absolutely amazing.”

For Steger there’s the advantage of having energy when needed. He will no longer have to fire up a generator to start a power tool or do other basic things requiring electricity.

“It’s energy on demand and the fact that this (the microgrid) is clean energy is quite remarkable,” he said.

Microgrids are being tested across the nation as a next evolution in grid technology. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has several being developed to allow for electricity generation during severe weather incidents and for off-the-grid locations such as Steger’s conference center.

Steger’s career

Ever since his childhood in suburban Minneapolis, Steger dreamed of living in the wilderness. He moved to Ely in 1970 and built a 500 square foot cabin “three miles from the nearest road,” he said.

Steger started his wilderness career as a dog sled and ski guide before starting a career in the 1980s and 1990s as an Arctic explorer. In the late 1980s he decided that if he was going to build a conference center he would have to begin making preparations.

He and his team brought in more than 1 million pounds of gravel and 5,000 bags of cement by dog sled to build a foundation – which was mixed together by hand.

Just a year later Steger built a road to the site. It would be some years later before his dream would reach fruition and include a career change. In 2006 he started the Will Steger Foundation in the Twin Cities and began living on a houseboat across from downtown St. Paul.

The foundation, recently rebranded as Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, now has 12 employees and a budget of more than $800,000. It does youth engagement, public outreach and education, all around the challenge of climate change.

Steger works with both environmental organizations and businesses. Xcel Energy executives told him of their decision to close two units of Sherco – the Sherburne County Generating Station – a week before making a public announcement in late September. He recently praised the utility in a letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Sherco is the largest carbon polluter in the state. As Steger sees it, Xcel’s decision will bolster Minnesota’s clean energy industry as it and other power providers continue to invest in renewables.

“It’s really great to see all this change,” he said. “I think we’re on the cusp of a new wave, with the public accepting the changes and opportunities that are going to come our way.”

Originally published at BringMeTheNews. Photo by John Ratzloff.

Nestled in the picturesque, unspoiled surroundings of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a groundbreaking retreat center took a major step toward opening this week.

For many years now, pioneering explorer and environmentalist Will Steger has been converting his homestead near Ely into the Will Steger Wilderness Center – a unique leadership retreat designed for those who want to solve the world’s problems.

And considering Steger – famous for leading the first ever dogsled expedition across Antarctica in 1990 – is a major climate change activist, it’s only fitting his wilderness retreat had an eco-friendly power source.

On Wednesday, the center flipped the switch on Phase I of its completely carbon-free, standalone power system, which will generate 20 kilowatts of power through a combination of solar and battery power sources.

The eyes of the sustainability world have been on northeast Minnesota, the center says, as renewable energy experts survey whether it is possible to create a successful, small-scale, fully-independent power grid.

It has been hailed as a “first for Minnesota” and is a huge landmark in the center’s progression, with Steger hoping leadership teams will be able to use the retreat starting in the fall of 2016.

“This is a big moment for us,” Steger told the Duluth News Tribune. “We’re saying goodbye to the seven generators that we’ve been maintaining for the last 20 years.”

The newspaper notes that by the time the center opens, wind and biodiesel power will also be introduced into the local power grid to meet the needs of the center.

Speaking to BringMeTheNews in 2013, Steger said he hoped to bring everyone from students to national policy leaders to the center, so they can discuss the “critical question of how to preserve and respect nature, live sustainably, while moving the country forward economically.”

But his focus is on the local as well as the global, as he told the Duluth News Tribune he wants people visiting the center to discuss how the expansion of renewable energy options in the Twin Cities could bring “equity to inner-city residents.”

Originally published at Northland News Center.

Ely, MN (NNCNOW.com) — It’s billed as a groundbreaking way to keep the lights on.

It’s a carbon-free power grid and it’s providing electricity to a Wilderness Center near the pristine BWCA.
Click here to subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Solar panels, generators and batteries are just a few elements that fuel Minnesota’s first functional micro grid.

“It’s ground breaking really because micro grids are going to spread,” said Sundial Solar CEO, Jon Kramer.
Most micro grids feed extra power back into the power line but this one is different.

“What’s unusual about this is it’s totally an independent system away from the power lines. It’s probably the largest micro-grid like it in the state right now and it powers the entire facility including the woodworking shop,” said Pioneering Polar Explorer, Will Steger.

71-year-old Will Steger is a pioneer in polar exploration and created this center in Ely as a place to educate and collaborate with others on solving issues surrounding climate change.

Partners in this project say the power system draws attention to clean energy.

“This is a demonstration project that will show what can be done both for Minnesota and the rest of the world,” said Kramer.

By flipping the switch, Steger says it’s proof there isn’t a need for fossil fuels.

“That’s the exhaust system..lights,” said Steger.

Phase one of the free-standing power system can provide up to 20 kilowatts of power, drawn from solar and battery sources, with a generator back-up.

The grid will also power a five-story retreat center that Steger hopes to have finished by the fall 2016.

Originally published at Duluth News Tribune. Photo by Steve Kuchera.

ELY — It took half a decade for Will Steger to get over having to put in a driveway.

After all, since he bought the land in 1968, his remote homestead next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness outside of Ely had been accessible only by dogsled or foot power. It had been a place of peace and isolation.

But now Steger, a lifelong adventurer and environmental advocate, has built that homestead into a wilderness retreat that will serve as a gathering place for crafting solutions to society’s big problems, Steger said. And visitors to the Will Steger Wilderness Center will do it using a sophisticated “carbon-free” renewable energy system.

That system went live on Wednesday, when Steger officially flipped the switch that effectively eliminated the constant need for fossil fuels.

The bank of solar panels on the Center’s woodshop roof that had been drinking up the October sun were now powering the table saws, light bulbs and computers at the Center. The noisy propane-fueled generators that had provided the Center’s electricity for decades were downgraded to backups.

“This is a big moment for us,” Steger said. “We’re saying goodbye to the seven generators that we’ve been maintaining for the last 20 years.”

Steger plans to eventually integrate wind and biodiesel into the electrical supply to meet the needs of the Center once it officially opens next fall.

Guests will approach the Center from the long, winding gravel driveway that once pained Steger to see cut through the wilderness. When he began laying the Center’s foundations in the late 1980s, Steger hauled in — literally — a million pounds of sand and gravel by dogsled. About that time he realized that to achieve his vision for the Center, he would need to have easier access to the property.

But he drew the line at running electrical lines to the wooded, rocky land overlooking Picketts Lake. Steger said he hopes to use the Center to bring together small groups of forward-thinking leaders to try and find practical solutions to daunting problems. He wants to encourage people to draw inspiration from the surrounding wilderness, he said — and the rumble of a set of generators just doesn’t mesh with that mission.

Nor does the continual delivery of fossil fuels to the Center, Steger said.

“By using renewable energy, we are showing that it’s really possible to live this way,” Steger said. “It’s really clean, it’s really inspiring.”

Steger, who lives part of the year in St. Paul, is perhaps best known for leading a 1986 dogsled expedition to the North Pole with Ely’s Paul Schurke. The 56-day journey was the first confirmed dogsled expedition to the North Pole without outside resupply. Steger planned much of the Center’s design during those long, cold trips when there was little else to think about, he said. Steger also founded the Will Steger Foundation nine years ago to bring awareness to global climate change.

Installing the renewable energy system has been something of an experiment to find out just what kind of equipment it takes to fully supply a large, multi-building complex with renewable energy, Steger said.

The system is called a “microgrid,” said Todd Yurk, chief technical officer for Sundial Solar, based in Minneapolis. The company has provided ongoing support and expertise in making the project work.

“All the electrical generation and electrical use is done on-site,” Yurk said. “It’s as if you have a miniature version of the country’s electrical grid” in the wilderness outside of Ely.

Designing the system to work well during northern Minnesota’s cold, dark winters as well as the warm, sunny summers was a challenge, Yurk said. The project engineers also had to plan for future growth and electrical needs. Fortunately, they were able to use existing infrastructure — including placing 40 solar panels on the roof of the Center’s woodshed and tying into existing buried electrical lines — to help keep costs down. The renewable system cost between $80,000 and $100,000 to install, said Jon Kramer, CEO of Sundial Solar.

Kramer said it’s the largest completely independent renewable energy system they know of in the state, if not the country.

“This is Minnesota’s first truly functional microgrid,” Kramer said.

Steger is planning to host the first group at the Center in the fall of 2016. He would like to focus on ways to bring economic equity to inner-city residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul by expanding renewable energy options, he said.

But the Center won’t be just a place for people “to feel warm and fuzzy, and then go home,” Steger said.

“We will be having working sessions to get things done.”