Tour highlights ways to conserve, save

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, December 17, 2011

A group taking part in a clean energy tour Friday stop off and hear about the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center's solar panel array. - Eric Johnson/

Locals saw on Friday several ways they can reduce their energy footprints.

Tracy Skaar looks at the underside of the solar panel array at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center at the end of a clean energy tour Friday. - Eric Johnson/

A new tour — pioneered by a conservation group called the Sierra Club and supported by many local conservation groups — toured several Austin areas Friday that aim to reduce Minnesota’s overall energy consumption.

Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, was just one of many advocates on the tour who are excited for the future of solar, wind, geothermal and other clean energy initiatives.

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“Here, locally, renewables are a huge part of what we are,” Sparks said, as he is also on one of Minnesota’s energy committees.

Sparks referred to a few of the aspects of the tour, which included the geothermal system at Packer Arena, solar panels in use at Austin local Mark Owens’ home, and the new solar panels at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.

Solar energy was the highlight of the tour. Steve Vietor, Riverland wind turbine tech instructor, was on hand to answer questions about solar panels, which his students are studying at the nature center. One of the main benefits of new solar panels, Vietor said, is that they switch DC current to AC current before it enters a building or home.

“And with that, you really have reduced cost,” he said.

At the Nature Center, very little of the energy produced by the panels is being used within the auditorium, as that building is only used on special occasions.

“We’re putting it all back on the line,” Vietor said about returning the energy to the grid, and added that the Nature Center’s solar panels are more of an educational tool.

Officials were quick to point out that people considering new energy initiatives should look at the initial costs and have an energy audit performed on their homes so they can see where they will benefit the most.

With solar panels, paying careful attention to positioning of the panels in relation to the sun and condition of the wiring can greatly increase their efficiency. That’s important to notice, because installing solar panels is expensive for the average homeowner. After years, however, the energy savings can be worthwhile.

Riverland Community College wind turbine tech instructor Steve Vietor talks about the technical side of the solar panel array at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center Friday. The stop was the end of a clean energy tour conducted in Austin. - Eric Johnson/

“Once you hit that payback threshold, you’re essentially getting free energy,” said Justin Fay, Sierra Club policy coordinator.

Fay said the tour was a success. Even though most people aren’t ready to tackle the start-up costs of solar panels, they can get plenty of rebates through their utility providers. Fay was particularly impressed with what Austin Utilities offers and said the company is a leading example that other utility companies could follow.

Dave Thompson of Austin Utilities gave plenty of examples on how locals can reduce their energy use and costs.

“If you’re refrigerator is avocado green or old enough to vote, you need a new refrigerator,” he jokingly said.

He added another Austin Utilities workshop is in the works for this spring, when citizens can apply for rebates and hear more.