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Airport marks solar installation for alternative energy

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Chosen as a project because of its public use and higher profile, the solar thermal heat now part of the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is hoped to be a model for renewable energy at work.

The project was made possible by Region 5 Development Commission, the Initiative Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL).

Based in Pine River, the nonprofit RREAL, manufactures solar thermal collectors and distributes them nationally.

A Wednesday ceremony marked the airport’s solar thermal project. Installed in February, the supplemental solar thermal space heating system is used to heat a large building that primarily stores the airport’s snow removal equipment. The building previously was dependant on propane as a heat source and had high heating costs.

“I’m amazed,” said Rick Adair, interim airport manager, of the heat generated by the solar panels. “When the weather conditions are right, we aren’t burning any gas out there. It is absolutely working great.”

RREAL reported the total project cost was about $25,500 with a return on investment expected in 13 years. The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs), a public-private partnership, reported the net savings in 30 years is expected to be $84,665.

Cheryal Lee Hills, Region 5 executive director, pointed out those savings affect taxpayers. The airport is jointly owned by the city of Brainerd and Crow Wing County.

Hills said the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is finding wind energy is not meeting its goals and is looking at solar thermal energy after seeing its use at smaller airports. It’s an example, Hills said, of metro areas learning from rural places.

Melissa Pawlisch, CERTs director for the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships program and Extension, said there is a push to look at energy efficiency in public buildings and for innovation Silicon Valley has nothing on central Minnesota.

“Energy efficiency is an economic development opportunity,” Pawlisch said as the group gathered around the conference table at the airport. Outside a cloudless blue sky and sunshine was in abundance. Minnesota, RREAL reports, has the solar resources equal to Houston.

Pawlisch said energy efficiency projects curb costs and keep local jobs. The project at the airport, Pawlisch said, is an opportunity to make energy efficiency at work visible to the public.

Founded in 2000, RREAL also pioneered Solar Assistance, which delivers solar air heat to low-income families on energy assistance as a solution to “fuel poverty.” The solar installation, combined with weatherization and energy efficiency upgrades, dramatically reduces heating costs, RREAL reports.

Colleen Landkamer, state director for USDA Rural Development and Matt Dalbey, director of the Federal and State Division of Environmental Protection Agency Office of Sustainable Communities, were on hand for the ceremony.

“I think we have to use renewable energy if we want to grow the economy, jobs and increase quality of life,” Dalbey said, adding the airport project marks a local, state and federal partnership to show renewable energy is viable.

“It’s a great model,” Dalbey said.

Kathy Gaalswyk, Initiative Foundation president, said Wednesday was a day to celebrate partnerships.

The project is sponsored by: USDA Rural Development, Initiative Foundation, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, Minnesota Power, Brainerd Regional Airport, Region Five Development Commission and Clean Energy Resource Teams. Marketing sponsors are: Brainerd Lakes Area Development Corporation, Creative Jinx and River Place Communication Arts.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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