ELY, Minn. — Fifty-one summers ago, a 20-year-old student enamored with the wilderness hitchhiked back to Minnesota after a 3,000-mile kayak trip in northern Canada and Alaska to start his junior year at St. Thomas. On his way home, he stopped in Ely and made a $25 down payment on a $1,000 purchase of 28 acres of land several miles northeast of town near the newly formed Boundary Waters Canoe Area. He found a rocky ridge in the almost impenetrable brush overlooking Pickett’s Lake, set down a log and said, “This is where I am going to build my cabin.”
Will Steger built that cabin by hand, all 250 square feet of it, clearing the land with a double-bladed axe and a chainsaw, heating his new home with a wood-burning stove and using kerosene lamps for light. What he called the Homestead slowly began to take shape, and over the next five decades he expanded the cabin and his holdings to include 240 acres dotted with a lodge, a wood shop, a sauna, a root cellar, an ice house, gardens, 16 sleeping cabins, a 270-foot well and a mile-long gravel road that connected him with civilization.
But something always was missing for Steger: freedom from the propane and diesel generators that provided the power for his compound and allowed him to pursue his many interests as an arctic explorer, educator, writer, photographer, conservationist and leading voice on the impact of global climate change.
The freedom finally arrived last Wednesday when Steger flipped a switch to activate what he believes will be the largest stand-alone, carbon-free power system in Minnesota. The microgrid, powered today by solar panels and eventually to include power from the wind and biofuels, will supply energy for the Homestead and a crown jewel 27 years in the making: the Steger Wilderness Center, a five-story, 5,000-square-foot building made of recycled wood, native timber and stone, and glass.
Friends, volunteers and representatives of companies that contributed solar panels, batteries and a backup diesel generator joined Steger for Wednesday’s ceremony. Also present were Dr. Greg Mowry, a St. Thomas associate professor of engineering who designed the power system, and Katelyn Jacobsen, an electrical engineering major helping Mowry develop a communication system to remotely monitor the microgrid.
“This is an incredible day for me,” said Steger, 71, who has three degrees from St. Thomas: a Bachelor of Arts in geology (1966), a master’s in education (1969) and an honorary doctorate (1991). “I have dreamed of this for so long. We finally will be able to run our facilities with renewable energy.”
“Inspiration” was the word used both by Mowry and Jon Kramer, founder and chief executive officer of Sundial Solar, to describe why they became involved in the project.
“Will is famous, and people pay attention to what famous people say,” said Mowry, who first met with Steger in early 2014 to learn about his desire for a microgrid. “An effective way to get the message out on the importance of alternative energy was to support Will’s vision.”
“As time goes on, you will see microgrids such as this deployed not only throughout the state but throughout the world,” said Kramer, whose Edina firm donated and installed the solar panels that make up the microgrid’s first phase. A Bloomington firm, tenKsolar, also is a partner in the project. “This will help extract us from the dependence on fossil fuels. As I like to tell people in my industry, ‘Let’s let the fossils rest in peace.’”
Mowry also was enticed by the potential to involve students like Jacobsen – an involvement that will reap benefits far beyond practical learning.
“This type of project allows me to tie those students in and also see a vision for the future,” he said. “Too often we take things around us – our energy systems, fossil fuels, petroleum – for granted. We don’t even think about the implications because power plants in South Dakota are out of sight, out of mind. It’s edifying to be part of this process … and then handing it down to students who will be doing great things after we are long gone.”
How the system works
Designing power systems is fundamentally “simple,” Mowry said, but there were additional challenges with Steger’s project because of the Homestead’s remote location in a wilderness with bitterly cold temperatures and short winter days of sunlight.
Direct current from the solar panels runs through underground cables into an inverter and is converted into 10 kilowatts of alternating current, explained Todd Yurk, chief technical officer for Sundial. The current then is funneled into 46 batteries donated by BAE Batteries of Somerset, Wisconsin.
The batteries provide the power to Steger’s wood shop, where a worker was using large saws to cut oak strips for flooring in the wilderness center. More batteries will be added when another 40 solar panels are installed, providing a total of 20 kilowatts of power. The final phases will include a wind turbine and the use of biofuels.
While Steger will rid himself of his propane generators, a new diesel generator donated by Cummins Power Generation of Columbus, Indiana, will provide power during emergencies or periods when solar energy production is insufficient to maintain the batteries.
Yurk called the power system “a groundbreaker” in alternative energy, and Kramer believes it will be the first true microgrid in Minnesota because of the way it will incorporate multiple sources of energy. Steger is pleased that the system, which has cost an estimated $250,000 so far, will become a demonstration model for others to emulate.
Steger Wilderness Center
The microgrid also is timely because it will allow Steger to more efficiently complete the wilderness center, which he has funded through earnings as a writer, speaker and explorer who led the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without resupply in 1986. Four years later, during the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica, Steger designed the center during evenings in his tent (and his original sketch of the center still hangs over the wood-burning stove in his cabin).
Steger envisions the center as a place where business leaders and policymakers can get away from everyday surroundings to discuss important issues and come up with solutions to resolve societal problems. Visitors to the center are awestruck by its simplicity and beauty, rising amid pines and other trees that Steger has planted; from the third-floor and fifth-floor decks, one looks out over literally miles of forest in every direction.
After he finished with tours of the center, Steger wandered down to Pickett’s Lake, which is part of his property, and sat on a dock near one of three floating sleeping cabins. It was a crisp fall afternoon, the sun beginning to recede in the west, and he reflected about a journey that began 51 summers ago when he kayaked to his new property.
“Today was my first official public launch of the center,” he said. “I always have kept the project close because it felt so private, but not today. I always have been a public person because of my explorations, but I survived them because I always had this wilderness retreat to return to.”