In Minnesota, an Arctic explorer’s off-the-grid dream becomes reality

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

AP Photo/Sal Veder

Will Steger in 1989.

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.”

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