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DNR state parks help reduce carbon footprint

Several Minnesota state parks are replacing old gas guzzlers with electric cars, installing solar panels that help generate electricity for many of its park buildings and visitor centers and rehabbing those buildings to use less energy. The efforts are helping the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) cut its overall energy use and reduce its carbon footprint.

"We're really trying to take a comprehensive approach to energy reduction overall," said Peter Hark, operations director for the DNR's Parks and Trails Division.

In 2012 -- through parks projects and new energy saving practices throughout the agency -- the DNR will have cut its energy use by 6 percent in two years for a savings of $800,000. That puts the agency on track to meet a target Gov. Mark Dayton set for state government to reduce its energy use 20 percent by the end of 2015.

Last year six solar systems were installed. This year, at least seven more installations are planned. In the last several years the DNR has doubled its renewable energy-generating capacity and ended 2012 with 22 photovoltaic (solar) and wind installations throughout the state, mainly at its parks buildings.

"DNR state parks are a major producer of renewable energy in the state," Hark said.

Camden State Park, for one, in southwestern Minnesota, uses wind power to generate electricity. A wind turbine's output fulfills most of the office's electrical needs. At Itasca State Park, near Bemidji, a roof-mounted solar system was installed on a visitor center in December.

At Wild River State Park, an hour's drive north of the Twin Cities, thermal panels are used to heat water at its campground showers. A solar system was installed to generate electricity.

On a sunny day the ground mounted panels just north of the park office generate more than enough electricity for the office. Any electricity generated in excess of the building's needs flows back into the electric grid and is credited to the park to reduce electric charges on cloudy days and at night.

Over the course of a year the solar panels are projected to provide for all of the park office's electrical needs. Since solar-generated electricity is a renewable source of energy, the park will be able to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions -- a contributing factor to global warming.

While solar installations may be the most visible way for the public to see energy savings at work, they're only a small piece of what's going on. At Wild River State Park, for instance, programmable thermostats were installed, old light fixtures were swapped out with more energy efficient bulbs, occupancy activated sensors for lights and building ventilation systems were installed and older, poor mileage vehicles were replaced with newer electric gas hybrids, said Paul Kurvers, park manager. During the 12-month-period from October 2011 through September 2012, the park reduced its energy use by 24 percent compared to the prior year, he said.

Bigger picture, "By using renewable sources of energy such as solar, and by reducing the amount of energy we use that is produced from the burning of fossil fuels, we're able to reduce carbon emissions that pollute the air, land, and water," Kurvers said.

Wild River is one example but throughout Minnesota, the parks and trails system is generating enough electricity to prevent 225 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, enough to take 39 cars off the road.

"At the end of 2015, we'd like to have 8 percent of the energy we use in our buildings come from renewable sources generated on site," said Rob Bergh, the DNR's energy coordinator. "Now, we're at a little over 1 percent."

The renewable energy installation costs at parks buildings and other DNR buildings, are paid by a combination of bonding money, Legacy Amendment funds and renewable energy development grants from Xcel Energy, the Minneapolis-based utility. For major projects through 2013, the costs are estimated to be $3.6 million.

To learn more about the DNR's energy saving efforts, visit the agency's Energy Smart website.