The micro-grid in the middle of nowhere has generated more than electricity for the Steger Wilderness Center. Phase 1 of the Center’s island-mode power project received worldwide recognition through the annual “Environmental Challenge Award” from Cummins Power Generation. Will Steger said the prestigious award is an affirmation that the Center is on the right track.

Energy Team

The Phase 1 energy team.

“Our mission is being recognized as sustainable and as a demonstration model. We’re doing what we say we’re doing. Plus, it’s early on. We’re just beginning and we’re drawing this sort of attention. It reflects the importance of the Center,” he said.

Cummins is the largest manufacturer of diesel engines in the world and among the top three in generator production. Wissam Balshe, from Cummins in Minneapolis, Minn., explained that the Environmental Challenge competition is open to Cummins employees. It’s an incentive for them to develop new ideas that will reduce carbon footprint, encourage environmental sustainability and assist community partners with technical and funding components that turn ideas into realities.

Of the 88 projects that competed globally for the award, Balshe said the ideas took many forms. Along with the micro-grid at the Wilderness Center, examples included: wood recycling in Brazil; lake cleanup in Indiana; environmental sustainability and climate change education for students in India; and beautification projects in remote towns that suffer from an abundance of garbage and pollution. Each project is awarded points at progressively larger regional levels. Phase 1 of the micro-grid project continued to win and ultimately topped all others at the global level.

According to Balshe, one of the biggest challenges for the Wilderness Center was succeeding with a project that had never been attempted. It was a hybrid power system that tied a mix of energy sources together so they worked seamlessly as one integrated system, not as separate components. The innovative brainpower required to pull off this lofty goal gave birth to the micro-grid concept.


The structure for the solar array and the generator building were aerodynamically situated to protect the panels from strong winds. The design prevented wind damage during the blowdown that swept through the Center last July.

The project began by assembling a diverse energy team of industry experts. Balshe and his colleague Sha Mohammed led the Phase 1 energy team of engineers from Cummins. He also networked with energy team members, companies and schools, including Jon Kramer from Sundial Building Performance who spearheaded Phase 1 of the project.

University of St. Thomas professor Greg Mowry was another energy team member. Early in Phase 1 of the project, his students from St. Thomas contributed to the design phase. The design work and feasibility analysis took place in summer 2014 and was implemented in 2015.

Generator Room

The generator building (right) houses the batteries that store 10 kilowatts of solar power at the Steger Wilderness Center.

Primary Phase 1 components included a generator donated by Cummins; insulation and an inverter from Sundial; batteries provided by BAE; and solar panels from Ten K Solar. Though the new generator is much cleaner than previous generators at the Center, Balshe said the team goals went even farther. They wanted to exceed EPA requirements and educate the community on the benefits of integrated energy sources.

“We don’t think that there’s one technology that’s going to be the best technology. It will be a mix of different technologies. That’s how we envision the future of energy,” he said.

Lodge & Panels

The solar array is positioned to provide 10 kilowatts of power to the lodge and workshop (foreground), and other buildings in the compound.

Innovation was a significant criterion for judging the competition and the strongest area for the Center’s energy team. Their engineering capabilities earned points for the “most innovative and technically complex project of 2015.” But high scores were also awarded for the project’s ability to serve as a model.

“You get a lot of points if you actually educate others on how to do this,” Balshe said.

He later emphasized the impact of the Center’s energy education for everyone.

“[The Steger Wilderness Center] is very important because you have a lot of students, sometimes community leaders, policy makers visiting the Center to… participate in environmental sustainability and climate change discussions. So, we wanted to have an energy solution, a power plan, that’s actually reflective of the mission of the Center,” he said. “We had to think of ways to use renewable energy without sacrificing reliability or availability.”


Todd Yurk (left) from Sundial Building Performance fields questions about the new generator donated by Cummins Power Generation.

Steger expressed his gratitude to Cummins for more than just the award. Their engineers were important advisors on the project.

“They gave us their expertise. We had their technicians working right beside us on the project. It was hands-on for them,” he said.

In looking to the future, Steger said Phase 2 of the energy project will incorporate wind power, increase the Center’s use of solar energy and bring in a director. “Our newest board member, Craig Tarr, will be the Wilderness Center’s ‘energy czar.’ He will coordinate all energy systems, which include electrical and heat.”

The Center’s new dining hall is also being designed in partnership with architecture students at Dunwoody College of Technology. The facility will be another model of energy use and conservation.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff


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 ( — 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.”

The Power House holds the generators and electric wiring for the Steger Wilderness Center, but there is also a specific room designated for the BAE industrial batteries from Germany. The separate room is necessary because the batteries produce gas fumes and excessive heat requiring the room to be well vented, but also well insulated which will make it easier to heat in the winter. There are two types of BAE batteries: one rack contains 24 gel batteries and the second rack contains 24 flood lead acid batteries. Each individual battery cell is 2.1 volts and the whole unit is 48-volt DC Nom system. These batteries can only hold a fraction of solar energy that the panel array produces.

Greg Mowry, Will Steger, and Todd Yurk Carrying the BAE Batteries

Greg Mowry, Will Steger, and Todd Yurk Carrying the BAE Batteries


Two Racks of BAE Batteries

Crews experienced a historical weekend at the Steger Wilderness Center as components of the micro-grid were installed in the Power House. A buzz of excitement, but also eagerness for final completion swarmed the Homestead as progress was made only Minnesota’s first fully separate grid from the electric system.

Tom Schroeder, Solar Technician and Team Leader at Sundial Solar

Tom Schroeder, Solar Technician and Team Leader at Sundial Solar

Tom Strom, Solar Technician at Greenstone Renewable Energy and Mike DeBoer, Manager of Operations and Facilities at the Steger Wilderness Center

Tom Strom, Solar Technician at Greenstone Renewable Energy and Mike DeBoer, Manager of Operations and Facilities at the Steger Wilderness Center

John Kramer, CEO of Sundial Solar Energy

John Kramer, CEO of Sundial Solar Energy

Todd Yurk, Director of Technical Operations at Sundial Solar

Todd Yurk, Director of Technical Operations at Sundial Solar

Greg Mowry, Professor at University of St. Thomas School of Engineering

Greg Mowry, Professor at University of St. Thomas School of Engineering

Julie Kramer

Julie Kramer, Painter Extraordinaire

Untitled design-14Painting can be a frustrating and even tedious task as arms begin to tire and frustration builds from first coat to last, but never here at the Steger Wilderness Center. Listening to musical renditions of the oldies, painting faces on walls, and charismatic conversations discussing the ethics of Disney songs give the Painting Maidens a reason to carry on. The past two days Power HouseAndrea Sandeen and I have been painting rooms in the Power House in preparation for installation of the German lead-acid batteries for the new solar panel array.

Last summer, a momentous event occurred at the Steger Center of which many people are not aware. Minnesota’s first fully operational Micro Gridelectrical system separate from the electric grid was installed. Sundial Solar, a Minnesota based company, installed the solar array and will be finishing it this weekend. More panels are being added and the system will be up and running by the end of the summer.

Though it was brutally hot and we became canvases in the process, the painting project was for a purpose that the Steger Wilderness Center has anticipated for decades, a micro grid. The Painting Maidens are just helping on one of the last steps before the finished product.

By Sarah Evans