Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The truth about Solar in Minnesota

I recently returned from Greenbuild in Phoenix, where the Habitat for Humanity of Central Arizona built a LEED-Platinum Zero Energy Home! The Legacy Project, constructed in 5 days, was built for around $120,000 (including building materials and donated goods and labor), and used solar panels to offset the energy use in the home. After having a conversation with a good building contractor friend who is trying to be more green, I decided to investigate the truth about solar in Minnesota.

Does Minnesota have enough sun? Phoenix has 350 days a year of sunshine and definitely should be taking advantage of solar energy production. Minnesota actually has a lot of solar potential as well. According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Minnesota has more annual solar potential than Houston, Texas. They are a great resource for information on solar feasibility in Minnesota and even have a map that demonstrates solar potential. After looking at this site, you will see that while you may never create excess energy to go back into the grid, the potential for solar is definitely there. Combine this with a well-sealed house and energy-efficient appliances and living behaviors (e.g. turning off your computer when not in use), and you may be completely set!

Aren't solar panels still just too expensive? There are actually a lot of funding sources out there right now. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency can help you find funding for your renewable energy project. Like all things, they do cost money, but as energy prices increase over the next few years, the solar panels may be paying for themselves.

So what about local options? Can you get solar panels that both travel short distances and support our local economy? Minnesota offers two solar panel production plants:

SolarSkies in Starbuck, MN
tenKsolar in Bloomington, MN

What if I just don't like the look of solar panels or am not sold on solar?

Don't forget that the sun can help in ways other than just energy production - passive solar heating (orienting a house with south-facing windows that heat a large thermal mass) and solar hot water systems work great in Minnesota!

Other renewable energy options are also available. The Clean Energy Resource Team (CERTS) network and the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society can help point you in the right direction.

So great job, Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona! Click here to see how Habitat for Humanity of Minnesota is accomplishing its own green goals.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Free Green House Plans

Even though the housing industry is not booming right now, I still receive a number of requests for green house plans from people hoping to build green in the future. Other people call for information on tips for remodeling green.

A while ago, I mentioned Free Green as a limited resource for free green plans. They have now updated their site to include more free and discounted plans, "making green building accessible to all." Click here for some of their free green house plans. Remember to consider smaller house sizes to reduce energy and resource consumption.

Dovetail Partners
also lists a number of other resources for free house plans.

Of course the greenest home may be one that just needs a little green renovating. The Minnesota GreenStar Remodeling program can bring your remodeling project up to green certification standards. The REGREEN program offers guidelines for helping keep your renovation green but does not include certification. Both go beyond increasing energy efficiency and also look at aspects of indoor air quality, water and resource consumption, waste management, renewable energy production, and site impacts.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Minnesota Communities teach Swedes about farms, forests, and clean energy

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Swedes were coming to Minnesota to learn about farms and forestry as part of a "green" education exchange. Many Minnesota communities and organizations participated and the exchange led to shared knowledge, new experiences, and happy memories for both the hosts and the visitors.

Minnesota Communities teach Swedes about farms, forests, and clean energy

Swedes’ visit to Minnesota is a Learning Experience for All

Last month Minnesota became home to Swedish business partners Erik Sundell and Per Hallnevik as they traveled across the state to learn more about farming and agricultural practices.

The two decided to visit Minnesota after meeting Minnesotans Kara Slaughter and Alison Lindburg in Sweden last March. Slaughter and Lindburg were participating in the Rotary Club’s Group Study Exchange (GSE) program, where they lived with host families and studied sustainability practices of Swedish communities for five weeks. Lindburg and Slaughter organized the Minnesota tour as a way to continue the education and exchange process.

“Erik and Per were especially interested in seeing harvesting operations, large farms and big machinery,” says Lindburg, director of the Eco-Affordable Housing Program of Minneapolis-based non-profit organization Dovetail Partners. “We were lucky to be able to also include clean energy production and a forestry tour.”

The tour was a collaborative effort of many organizations and communities, and included site visits and tours across Minnesota. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the South Central Chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association sponsored tours, including an observational visit of Sun-Opta organic and identity-preserved grain handling. One visit included picking fresh sweet corn right out of the field.

Wet weather conditions impeded the observation of harvesting practices, but other activities kept Hallnevik and Sundell busy. One day included working at the Farmers' Success grain elevator in Clark’s Grove, and another was spent touring the facilities of Hope Creamery. They also visited Aitkin, where they went on a forestry tour and remarked on the similarities in landscape to Sweden.

Common ground was discovered in the use of similar types of logging machinery on the forestry tour. One major difference was pest control – wild hogs are a major cause of agricultural crop damage in Sweden. “They also noted that our lack of biomass markets leads to more non-merchantable trees and coarse woody debris being left in the forest,” says Mark Jacobs, Aitkin County Land Commissioner. “They were not aware of any coarse woody debris retention guidelines in Sweden.”

Hallnevik and Sundell further experienced Minnesota life by staying with host families during their visit. Jim and Nancy Barbour, who hosted in Morris, found it to be a great learning experience. “It was interesting to hear about their crop rotations and to think about farming without GMO crops, which we take for granted,” says Nancy.

Jim Barbour, who gave a tour of the Biomass Gasification project at the University of Minnesota-Morris, learned “that like many American farmers, they have off-farm jobs in addition to their farming.” The Morris tour also included the University’s wind turbine, the North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory, and visits to local farms and farm machinery.

One truly Minnesotan moment occurred during a tour when an eagle flew overhead in the Morris area. “It was as if it had been staged! Just beautiful!” says Jim Barbour.

“Everyone had a great time and they really enjoyed Minnesota,” says Slaughter, tour organizer and board member of non-profit organization Renewing the Countryside. “It was great to teach them about Minnesota and watch everyone pull together to make the tour possible.”

For more information on the tour, see this article.





Monday, November 16, 2009

Made in Minnesota: sourcing local building materials

I just returned from Greenbuild 2009, and the talk this year was focused on reducing carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions. So how do you do this in your community, workplace, home, or building project? One of the simplest ways to do this is to choose local building materials.
I have talked about local in the past and thankfully, there are now even more resources to help you source local building materials right here in Minnesota.

The Dovetail Partners - Minnesota Made project assists communities in meeting sustainability goals and builds projects that use products nearest to specific communities. Dovetail works with the local contractors to put money back into the community, provides green building education, and calculates the environmental impact of using local building materials for each project. Dovetail also offers a map of local building materials and the report Green Building Materials - Made in Minnesota.

The Midwest Home Magazine - Made in Minnesota database allows you to search from over 300 products made in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Building Materials Database from the University of Minnesota's Center for Sustainable Building Research provides a wide array of technical information on building materials, including location and distance traveled for manufacturing.
Remember: not only does choosing local building materials help the environment, but it also helps the local economy!