Greening Minnesota ~ September 2011

Fall is in the air! The leaves are turning gold and red, but there are still some great green initiatives and events happening in Minnesota. There are plenty of people ad local communities working towards a cleaner environment for all Minnesota residents. Read on to find out more.

The annual report on organic farm performance from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and University of Minnesota said 2010 was a good year for organic farms. "Profits improved but were not outstanding." Balance sheets, however, were on average very sound as they headed into 2011. The report said that after a difficult 2009, the median organic producer earned a net farm income of $62,463 in 2010. That was a sixfold increase over 2009 and was consistent with returns earned in 2007 and 2008, which were considered very profitable for the organic sector.

As a Hopkins High School junior, Dustin Kloempken had the bright idea of getting solar panels installed to make his school more eco-friendly. It took six years, but the now-24-year-old's persistence has finally paid off. Six solar panels were installed at the school in September. Hopkins High School now is among just a few Minnesota schools with solar panels. One of those schools, Chisago Lakes Middle School in the north-metro, installed 44 solar panels two years ago thanks to several grants and donations covering the $73,000 cost. The 10 kilowatts of power save the school $1,600 a year in energy costs.

Grandview Tire and Auto's two-year-old building on W. 70th Street in Edina is a model of energy efficiency, with its insulated garage doors, white roof to cut heating and cooling costs and boilers burning waste oil to help heat the building. Manager Rick Murphy says the building would be even more efficient if it had solar panels. He'd like to add them and gradually pay them off over a few years as part of the property taxes for the business. Twenty-seven states, including Minnesota, now allow "property assessed clean energy," better known as PACE. PACE programs allow owners of homes and businesses to pay for energy improvements such as new insulation, windows, heating systems or solar systems over a number of years by adding the cost to property tax payments.

Everything from motor oil to household chemicals to outdated computer monitors poured into Washington County's newest recycling center in the past two years. The latest numbers show collections still on the increase at the Woodbury center, at 4039 Cottage Grove Drive, but the growth rate has slowed since 2009 when the county expanded its role in recycling. The county projects that it will collect nearly 3.5 million pounds of household hazardous waste and electronics in 2012m about 1 million pounds more than just two years ago. The Woodbury recycling center, on the city's southside, also has a free "reuse" room for products such as paint and motor oil. It's open Tuesdays from noon to 7 p.m. and Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dropoffs are free but proof of county residency, such as a driver's license, is required.

For years, only bad things happened at a vacant lot in Minneapolis. Then, in spring 2010, a woman on a bike showed up and started to plant a garden on the troubled lot. Neighbors noticed, and started pitching in. It's now a thriving community garden, but unlike most, there are no designated plots and no individual ownership of produce, as people "People show up, make a garden and share everything" - it is its own unique model for a community garden. In little more than a year, the garden has transformed the blighted lot in south Minneapolis into a community gathering spot, where neighbors of many cultures and ages congregate to tend the garden and watch its progress.

Vast Enterprises, a small Minneapolis company that makes pavers and other building materials from recycled tires and plastics, can now launch nationally thanks to investment by Pennsylvania-based AZEK Building Products, a maker of specialty building material. Vast has struggled to raise financing in a tough market, but its pavers are far more durable, use waste as the principal feedstock and consumes less energy to manufacture. The Minneapolis company and its low-energy alternatives to traditional concrete and clay bricks have won awards for durability, lightweight and environmental engineering.  Thanks to the cash infusion, Vast will triple its revenues in 2012 and it workforce will roughly double to 25 over the next year.

More than a dozen White Bear Lake-area restaurants are participating in a two-year Energy Efficiency Community Development Block Grant organized through the city of White Bear Lake, the White Bear Chamber of Commerce and the Green Institute. The $50,000 federal grant examines restaurant energy consumption practices, building infrastructure and recommends a list of improvements. Officials said the program is designed to save restaurants 10-15 percent on energy bills. For most area restaurants, that’s a savings of $1,500, to $2,000 a year. In addition to reducing energy usage in general, if a restaurant can save money on utility bills, the owners may not have to raise prices on their food.

The Bassett Creek Watershed Management Commission is planning to spend $856,000 to stabilize the stretch of creek that runs from Golden Valley Road south to Irving Avenue N., most of it flowing through Wirth Park. Also in the plans is a $180,000 water control device that would prevent the creek from backing up into Wirth Lake, protecting the swimming and fishing lake's water quality. The neglected stream is considered an important natural asset in cities like Golden Valley, Crystal and Plymouth. For decades, people have been trying to save the creek, which in the 1920s was used as a dump. Work on the project would start in the winter of 2011-12 and be done by the spring of 2013.

Drivers soon will be able to plug in their electric vehicles to recharge when they park at the city-owned Haaf parking ramp near City Hall. The City Council is moving toward adding three grant-funded charging stations to the ramp, located at 424 S. 4th St., by the end of the year. Normal parking charges will apply but the city will absorb the added electrical bill. That’s estimated at under $1,800 annually, assuming that the chargers are under eight hours every weekday. The ramp at the county-run central library ramp also offers the service.

From beef hot dogs made in Cannon Falls to Bemidji-grown brown rice, Hopkins and more Minnesota schools are going closer to home this fall for locally made foods. They join a growing national movement to eat healthier and fight childhood obesity before new federal child nutrition guidelines are released early next year. Though schools have had to increase the price of their meals an average of 5 to 10 cents, it is a small price to pay for better nutrition for kids as well as healthier local economies.

The winner of the 2011 Idea Open, a crowd sourced contest on the best idea for cleaning up Minnesota waters, tackles the biggest pollution problem in the state with a simple solution: Use farmers to teach farmers about the best conservation practices to protect against agricultural runoff. The winner, Minnesota FarmWise, is a partnership between the Mississippi National River Recreation Area (MNRRA), a division of the National Park Service, and the Freshwater Society. The $15,000 grant would be enough to set up a pilot program of educators and retired farmers who would work in local communities to reach farmers. The goal is to teach farmers farming practices that are effective in keeping soil and fertilizer on the land and not lose it to surface runoff.

Though the Minnesota Cup and Cleantech Open may be referred to as “startup” competitions, five Minnesota companies in the contests’ renewable energy, green building and clean-tech divisions are a little more advanced. The three 2011 Minnesota Cup semifinalists already have commercial sales, and two other Minnesota semifinalists in the Cleantech Open’s North Central Region show good odds as well. Read this look at the winners and semifinalists in the Minnesota Cup, clean technology and renewable energy division.

If you know about green initiatives and other environmentally-conscious programs and events occurring in the Twin Cities or Minnesota, please leave a comment and let us know for October's Greening Minnesota issue!

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