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Steger Wilderness Center flips switch on innovative power system

The main building at the Will Steger Wilderness Center -- 5,000 square feet in size -- sits on a hill above Picket Lake and is still being finished inside. Steger designed the center to bring small groups together to collaboratively solve problems facing the world. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 6
A visitor to the Will Steger Wilderness Center walks toward the center’s centerpiece building on Wednesday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Visitors gather around Will Steger (center) in the atrium of the main building at his wilderness center on Wednesday as he describes some of the room’s features. The glass enclosed, south-facing room is designed to help heat the building via passive solar heating; on Wednesday the temperature at the top of the room was about 100 degrees. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 6
The main building at the Will Steger Wilderness Center includes a large deck off the third story. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 6
A visitor at the Will Steger Wilderness Center takes a picture from a gazebo on the third-floor deck of the center’s main building. The center’s new solar panel array is visible in near the center of the picture. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Polar adventurer Will Steger stands near the building holding solar panels at the Will Steger Wilderness Center near Ely on Wednesday. The center hosted an invitation-only event to celebrate the completion of the first phase of the installation of its micro-grid power system -- containing solar panels, batteries and backup generator. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com6 / 6

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."

To learn more

Will Steger Wilderness Center: stegerwildernesscenter.org