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.
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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.”


“I had my hydroseal outfit on, neoprene socks, gloves and helmet. I shoved off at the bottom of the rapids. There was blowing snow and the water was very black. It was treacherous, stark and extremely beautiful. The danger was the black water because it covered up rocks, and if I hit a rock in midstream it could take my life.”

— Will Steger, from his 2014 solo boundary waters trip during spring break-up.

He was at it again the other day, Will Steger, envisioning the time — soon — when he can clear his head of the day-to-day stuff and live, as he says, in the moment.

By Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune, February 28, 2015

Continue Reading…

“This is the suit I wore for the Trans-Antarctica expedition”, Will Steger says nonchalantly as he flops an insulated onesie covered with sponsor patches on the crude table, his breath visible in the unheated gear shed. Snow covers the skylights and it’s dark inside. Steger is comfortable in the dark and cold; this is the man who led the first dogsled expedition across the Antarctic continent.

He continues rummaging through a closet of expedition jackets with a decidedly 1980s color palette. “We were the first to use reflective patches on our jackets for visibility in whiteouts”, he says without a hint of boastfulness. Of course! And now they’re on every rain jacket you see on city sidewalks, along with the vertical zipper chest pocket, another Steger innovation.

This stuff belongs in a museum. In fact, Steger’s gear shed is a museum of sorts, a place where expeditions were outfitted and groundbreaking gear was designed; it is a tangible timeline of some of the greatest feats of polar exploration in history. On the wall hangs a crude pair of pants made from fur-covered seal skin. Leaning in the corner is a quiver of fat skis. Steger grabs a pair of yellow Epokes from the pile and looks at them like he would an old friend. “This pair has been through everything. I’ve even used them to break up dog fights.”

In addition to his 1990 crossing of the Antarctic continent (the long way) as head of an international team of men from six countries, Steger’s curriculum vitae reads like a history book of polar exploration. In 1986, his unsupported dogsled journey to the North Pole was history’s first verified of its kind. His 1988 south-to-north unsupported traversal of Greenland, which was done as training for the Southern Continent attempt, was also the first such journey. And in 1995, he became the first to complete a dogsled crossing of the Arctic Ocean, from Russia to Canada, a trip that will probably never again be possible given the rapidly melting sea ice on top of the world. This fact is something that profoundly troubles Steger.

“In 1989, we crossed the massive Larsen Ice Shelf at the start of our trip across Antarctica”, Steger says, “and 13 years later, the section that we had crossed slid into the sea. That’s when I knew things were getting really bad.” He has been something of an ecology bellwether for much of his cold career. In 1988, his book Saving the Earth was one of the earliest to sound the alarm about global warming, and his eponymous foundation has focused on lobbying and education around environmentalism since 2006. For his efforts in public service, as well as his polar firsts, Steger was given the National Geographic Society’s John Oliver La Gorce Medal, a prestigious award that put him in the company of Earhart, Cousteau, Amundsen and Peary — and no one else since he was given it in 1995.

All of Will Steger’s feats make him seem like a larger-than-life figure. But in reality, he is a small-framed, septuagenarian introvert who spends much of his time on a 280-acre swath of wilderness in far northern Minnesota that Steger and his acolytes call “The Homestead”. He bought this tract of land in the late 1960s, when no roads accessed the dense forest and lake on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. And Steger liked it that way. In the past four decades, he has slowly built a compound of stone and wood buildings, painstakingly by hand, with supplies he quarried or cut locally or pulled in by ski, canoe or dogsled, often as training for expeditions. A handful of rustic, wood-heated cabins dot the woods and a central expedition lodge is a low-ceilinged building that used to be Steger’s woodshop but then served as expedition headquarters, where most of his great adventures were hatched and planned.

On the hill above it all sits a sylvan cathedral, Steger’s magnum opus, a towering wood, stone and glass building nicknamed “The Castle”, which will soon become the centerpiece of the Steger Wilderness Center. Designed with pencil and paper in his tent during the Trans-Antarctica expedition and built by hand over the past 25 years, the building is Steger’s legacy, a place intended to educate, mediate and reconnect students, business and community leaders and educators away from the busy urban world. While he is a man who covets his privacy and only reluctantly put in a road to his Homestead a few years ago, Will Steger is ready to open it up to a world that needs nature now more than ever.

“Through my expeditions, I realized that great things happen in small groups and that my role is one of organizer and facilitator”, he says. Unlike so many modern explorers with Instagram accounts and energy drink endorsements, Will Steger is a man who prefers to let his actions do the talking. Despite his accomplishments, he is eminently humble and only when asked do his amazing tales come out, and even then with a matter-of-fact delivery. This humility, combined with a quiet confidence, have made Steger a magnet for followers who are drawn to him, like a boreal Buddha, and the Homestead bustles with people of all ages who come to help with chores in exchange for a little bit of his wisdom.

Back in the gear shed, Steger, who turned 70 last August, unfurls a map and points to a tangle of rivers and lakes that form the border between Minnesota and Canada. He is planning a six-week solo outing across this region in late March, towing a fortified canoe filled with gear down frozen rivers and waterfalls that are just breaking up in the springtime thaw. “It’s dangerous but it’s something I try to do every spring. It’s my relaxation.”

A trailblazing adventurer became a leading educator

Article published in The GuardianThe Guardian by John AbrahamJohn Abraham

As readers know, I often focus on the story, and history, of someone who makes an impact in climate change. This is the third such article and I think you will agree, it shows that it isn’t just lab scientists and academics that are shaping the conversation about climate change.

Will Steger really rose to prominence as he led ventures to explore the polar regions of our planet. But those adventures were years in the making; they began in his childhood. Will was one of nine kids raised by parents who encouraged exploration. As long as Will stayed out of trouble and succeeded in school, he had very few limits placed on his activities. In 1957 when Will was 13, he would document meteorological activity in journals at night as part of the International Geophysical Year, in addition to nature drawings of close up flowers and other aspects of the natural world. By 15, he was inspired by adventures of Huck Finn and his National Geographic magazines to travel with his brother down the Mississippi River. It was his first (and last) motorized expedition.

In college, Will fell in love with geology and begin to explore the world more seriously. He graduated with a B.S. degree and began a teaching career which included climate change. But, it was in the wilderness that he began to make his mark.

It was Will’s early observation of the natural world and his curiosity of weather and climate that eventually enabled him to explore and survive in the Arctic. It is likely that no one has more first-hand experience in the Arctic and Antarctic than Will. He has traveled tens of thousands of miles by kayak and dogsled – leading teams on some of the most significant polar explorations our world has ever known. He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from National Geographic Magazine, the inspiration from his childhood, in 2007.

Will Steger joined Amelia Earhart, Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen in receiving the National Geographic Society’s prestigious John Oliver La Gorce Medal in 1995 for Accomplishments in Geographic Exploration, Accomplishments in the Sciences, and Accomplishments in Public Service to Advance International Understanding. This was the first time the Society presented these three categories together and this award has not been given since.

Among his accomplishments are the first confirmed dogsled journal to the North Pole without resupply (1986), the longest unsupported dogsled expedition in history (1600 mile traverse of Greenland in 1988), the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica (3471 miles in 1989-1990), and the first dogsled traverse of the Arctic Ocean in one season (1995).

In this era of satellite sensing, we can see to every corner of the planet. But, we still gain much from the firsthand witness of human explorers. Who better to be a witness than Will Steger? In fact, following his expeditions, Will changed his life trajectory by embarking on an ambitious new agenda to improve childhood education. In 2006, he founded the Will Steger Foundation. This foundation deals exclusively with climate change by working with youth, educators, decision makers, and the public to foster climate literacy. Each year, the Foundation reaches over 1,000 educators through their programs and today they count over 5,000 youth who are engaged in creating solutions on their campuses and in their communities.

When I spoke to Will recently, he said,

Part of our public outreach and policy work requires I give a lot of talks about my eyewitness account of climate change. I also work with policy makers in support of clean energy and jobs. Among the silver linings in all of this is that there are tremendous benefits to local economies that result from transitioning from a fossil fuel economy to a clean energy one.

In Minnesota, where the bulk of Will’s work occurs, the impact has been felt. Minnesota has a set of nation-leading laws passed with broad bipartisan support in 2007. There is a Renewable Energy Standard, which requires at least 25% of electricity to come from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2025. Minnesota also has smart energy efficiency goals to ensure we use our energy more wisely. The goal is to reduced carbon dioxide emissions 15% by 2015, 30% by 2025, and 80% by 2050. Along with a cleaner environment, increases in high-paying jobs in the renewable energy industry have arrived. Will’s work, and the results in his state show that we can solve the climate/energy problems in a way that improves the economics of the region.

I asked Will about the struggles he has observed. He told me,

There are still many who are in denial about what is happening – mostly, I believe, for economic reasons. And it hasn’t helped that the issue has been politicized. But now we’re all seeing the evidence of a changing climate; and seeing is believing. I think we’re finally reaching a consensus on the fact that the world is getting warmer, and parents are becoming concerned about the world their children will inherit.

I have never seen such drastic changes in the Arctic as quickly as I have in the last twenty years. Every ice shelf I have crossed by dogsled, foot or ski, has disintegrated into the ocean. Scientists tell us we have ten years, if that, to make significant changes.

I’ve been traveling in the Arctic for 50 years, and I have an innate interest in climate and ocean currents. In total, I’ve spent more than 1,000 days on Arctic pack ice, and I have seen major changes in the polar areas. That’s what motivated me to start the Will Steger Foundation. The polar areas used to be 90% frozen all summer; now, it’s 50% open ocean. That means you can no longer reach the North Pole by dog sled. This is important because when the northern polar region is frozen it reflects light, which shines almost continuously during the summer months. Going from 90% to 50% ice over the summer months means that we are now absorbing more light that we’re reflecting. This absorption by dark surfaces causes further melting, which is known as the albedo affect. This is a contributor to global warming.

You don’t have to be a climate scientist to know that, but hearing it from someone who has been there makes an impact. Keep up the good work Will.

JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune

Star TribuneELY, Minn. – Go east out of Ely, past the gas station and the Wolf Center, leaving any semblance of civilization behind. Dirt roads narrow and giant potholes rattle your chassis for miles. You turn down the long driveway, past a gate and a sign that warns to watch for dog sleds.

The forest opens to gardens, an enclave of small wooden buildings and a makeshift “lodge,” old furniture scattered on the porch. Then you see it, atop a tall hill, like some glass and wood Rubik’s Cube crowned with turrets and circled by ornate walkways. Miles from the nearest neighbor, it looks wildly incongruous and completely organic.

This is the last dream of polar explorer Will Steger, a quiet, 25-year project to create a magical retreat for the world’s best thinkers. Someday, he hopes, those people will come here to solve problems grand and small. Secluded far from distractions and surrounded by some of the most stunning wilderness in the world, experts in agriculture, education, poverty or anything else will be able to gather and come up with solutions to society’s most vexing issues.

But first, Steger has to finish his quixotic quest. He needs money, attention and help.

That’s where Jess Hill and Jermaine Rundles, recent graduates of Summit Academy OIC, come in. Summit, in north Minneapolis, teaches skills in health care and building trades to unemployed or underemployed people in poor neighborhoods to help them find good jobs that get them off public assistance.

Hill and Rundles were part of one of the teams this summer that traveled to Steger’s compound and helped him construct one of the dozen cabins on the 240-acre homestead. The work let them hone their carpentry skills while helping Steger build the dream. It also exposed many of them to the wilderness for the first time.

When Hill, 23, first saw the castle-like building, she searched for words to describe it. “It was kind of ridiculous, but beautiful,” she said.

“Oh, it was gorgeous,” added Rundles. “After driving over 200 potholes, I looked up and it was just crazy. It was epic.”

Hill, who had camped in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness before, was wowed with Steger’s land and retreat center. She said the team worked eight- to 10-hour days, “depending on how exhausted we were,” then sat around a campfire and learned about one another, and about Steger and his world adventures.

They started from scratch and framed a 16-by-16-foot cabin, put in the walls and floors and added the roof. Another group will go up this month and finish the cabin.

“It’s one thing to build a wall in a classroom, it’s another to build an entire cabin in the outdoors and have to level it,” Hill said. “I had never done a roof before.”

During a tour of his grounds, Steger said he had been on boards for nonprofits with Summit’s president, Louis King. They had worked on various projects to help make people in impoverished communities employable.

They decided that working on his cabins would give students a chance to build and finish a project on a small scale, doing everything from the blueprints back in Minneapolis to the finishing touches of the tiny but efficient homes, where visitors will live while at the retreat.

“It’s important for them to get a finished product so they can see exactly what they’ve accomplished,” said Steger, who slept in tents with participants even though he has a small cabin on the ridge overlooking his lake.

But the program isn’t just about job skills. Steger said he learns about participants’ lives back in the cities and the hurdles they’ve overcome to get here.

“One of the guys talked about how he had been homeless,” Steger said. “A lot of them have never been in nature like this.

“I think their wilderness experience was just incredible,” Steger added. When they arrive, “they just take it all in, the scenery, the magic of the wilderness. For some of them, it was hard to leave. They said they were sad to leave.”

Thus far, Steger has footed the bills for the Steger Wilderness Center (www.willsteger.com) himself, and built much of it, along with a 10-member crew. But he’s been spending time in the Twin Cities lately trying to drum up more support to complete the project, which consists of the four-story retreat center and a dozen cabins. All of them are in various stages of construction, but nothing is yet completed.

As dreams go, it’s pretty lofty. But so are his plans for programming.

“Generally in leadership circles, people live in silos and it’s hard to communicate,” said Steger. “My goal is to take groups of leaders into that magic of a wilderness setting and put them to work. It’s not going to be the kind of retreat where you come up here to feel good about yourself.”

“If I can pull this off,” Steger said, “I could have the biggest impact of my life.”

He’s already had an impact on Rundles, 29, who worked in a warehouse before getting his scholarship at Summit.

“I feel pretty lucky to be able to see it,” Rundles said. “It was frustrating at times, but at the end of the day, seeing I actually built that, it was crazy.”

After work, he hiked 2 miles through the woods to a nearby lake and caught a mess of fish. They didn’t have time to clean them, so he put his stringer into Steger’s private lake to keep them alive.

“Aw, man, a turtle ate all 30 of them,” he said. The next time, he was more careful.

Since working for Steger, both Hill and Rundles landed jobs with Mortenson Construction, and are working on the Vikings stadium.

“The outcome is fabulous,” said Rundles. “Everything I asked for has come true. It’s something I can show people. I put my sweat, and a little blood, into that.”

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

Twitter: @jontevlin

Via StarTribune.com


MinnPostWilliam Moreland experienced a lot of firsts as he wrapped up his studies at Summit Academy OIC, a community-based vocational training and job placement program in North Minneapolis.

MinnPost: Summit Academy students, Will Steger break ground on cabin-building initiative in BWCAAlong with learning about construction math, building materials and power tools, the 36-year-old Texas-native became one of the first academy graduates to build a cabin adjacent to the Boundary Waters for renowned polar explorer Will Steger. Moreland and his classmates started building the cabin in late June at the Steger Wilderness Center in Ely, Minn.

“I got really inspired being able to go meet someone like Will Steger,” Moreland said, who visited the Boundary Waters for the first time. “I look at it as development and personal empowerment. It’s just a real exciting opportunity that I’ll be able to talk about for years.”

The project is part of a new partnership between the Steger Wilderness Center and Summit Academy. This summer, students will get real-life construction experience using recycled materials, while replacing a cabin at the center that burned down three years ago.

Steger and Louis King II, the founder of Summit Academy, hatched the idea about eight years ago while teaming up for H.I.R.E. Minnesota, a program aimed at ensuring that public investments in infrastructure and renewable energy help transition people from poverty and reduce racial disparities. For the cabin project, Steger provided a week of room-and-board and building materials, while the students gave their carpentry expertise and labor.

“Building little cabins in the wilderness is just a great experience,” Steger said. “People want a job, they don’t want to live in poverty. They want to work. What it’s really about for myself is I have a real commitment to the inner city. It’s about getting opportunities here.”

Moreland, who lives in Minneapolis, used to drill oil rigs. When he became dissatisfied with his job, he started looking for new career opportunities. That’s when his brother told him about the Pre-Apprentice Carpentry Program at Summit Academy.

The two-phase program provides students with job readiness skills in the construction trade through classroom and hands-on training. The first 10 weeks covers general industry training, while the second 10 weeks provides hands-on training.

MinnPost: Summit Academy students, Will Steger break ground on cabin-building initiative in BWCAThe program costs $5,400, but tuition is generally paid for through a combination of federal financial aid, donations and foundation grants, according to Steve Shedivy, director of marketing at Summit Academy. Students don’t have out-of-pocket costs or loans to pay back.

Typically, students using the program are low-income adults who are unemployed or under-employed, Shedivy said. They must have a minimum of a high school degree or GED and pass an entrance exam. Students are selected based on interviews and academic performance.

The selection process can be stringent, Shedivy added.

Upon graduation, students receive an undergraduate certificate and have the skills to work at union shops as pre-apprentices, said Jim Jordan, operations supervisor in the carpentry department at Summit Academy. Jordan is leading the cabin project.

Moreland and five other students built the cabin’s 16-by-16-foot structure during the weeklong trip, starting June 15. A second group of students will return in early July to complete the interior and exterior. The cabin will house up to two visitors at the center, Steger said.

Jess Hill, 23, of Mounds View, also joined Moreland for the first cabin-building trip. Hill grew up camping in the Boundary Waters. She also took on minor building projects as a girl, making plant box and shingles with her family. Hill said she jumped on the chance to work with Steger — whom she admires for his dog-sledding expeditions across Antarctica.

“I was right on top of it,” Hill said. “When I heard that we were building a cabin for someone as big as Will Steger, I wanted to go.”

After graduating from Summit Academy, Hill hopes to find a job with a union contractor, learn as much as she can from others, and eventually become a foreman.

Moreland wants to find a job in union carpentry, too.

“I want to gain work experience,” he said. “I want to build a reputation and move forward in this career. I really want to make it work for me. I’m just going to own it, do it, and teach others.”

Summit had a 71 percent job placement rate for students who completed the pre-apprentice program between 2012 and 2013, according to the program’s website.

Steger said he plans to have more building projects for Summit Academy students in the future.

“It’s a really neat experience,” he said. “The friendships you build here are really important. I think some of these people will probably stay in touch too.”

Via MinnPost.com