Cook County Local Energy Project  brings sustainable energy home

Patrick Hamilton stands next to an ASHP water heater unit.


In the far reaches of northern Minnesota technological solutions to decrease fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions are being sought.

Last month Cook County Local Energy Project (CCLEP) hosted an event called Local Climate Change Solutions, bringing expert speakers to the public to share the effects climate change is having in the Arrowhead’s environment, and technology solutions that can be applied at a local level.

Formed in 2009 as a nonprofit in Grand Marais, CCLEP seeks to increase renewable energy development locally.

Chel Anderson, plant ecologist and botanist who works with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Biological Survey said her goal as a speaker at the event was to deliver a straightforward message about how Cook County’s climate is changing and the impact it is having on the area’s vegetation. Anderson is also a member of CCLEP.

“Climate is a driver of every living thing, and when changes happen to vegetation, we can expect changes to all our lives,” Anderson said.

One change already occurring in Cook County is tree canopy dieback that opens gaps, allowing a flourishing of the already present red maple.

Anderson said this climate change phase is markedly different than in the past, where the planet saw warming and cooling over thousands of years. The current warming trend of about 200 years, she noted, differs in the incredible rate of speed compared to past climate change eras. She said CCLEP has noted energy efficiency as one of its top priorities.

“The energy we never need is best of all, so CCLEP emphasizes finding what isn’t energy efficient and how we can improve that,” she said.

Being part of the community has given CCLEP credibility with its audience, the home and business owners of Cook County. Anderson believes the organization’s strong argument for community sustainability has resonated with residents.

“We are at the end of the line here, fuel and energy are more expensive and we have to have these conversations to grapple with how individuals and government can improve inefficiencies and move toward renewables,” Anderson said.

Science Policy Director at Fresh Energy, J. Drake Hamilton also spoke at the event. Fresh Energy is a nonprofit in Minnesota working on transitioning to clean energy with an eye toward economic balance. An expert on climate and energy policy, Hamilton gave her view of what practical changes can be made in northeastern Minnesota to get ahead of the economic curve of climate change.

With 50 percent of Minnesota’s carbon footprint coming from heating and electricity for our buildings, she said technology like air-source heat pumps for improving that percentage is something local residents should be looking at. 

Air-source heat pumps (ASHP) are not a new technology, but one that is recently gaining popularity in the Midwest, and has lately seen rapid technological advances.

At Great River Energy, Jeff Haase, a strategic energy and efficiency representative, explained ASHP works just like a refrigerator.

“It defies understanding in colder temperatures like northern Minnesota, but there is still heat in the air and air-source heat pumps move heat from the outside to heat a house, and move heat from the inside to cool it in the summer,” he said.

AHSPs are installed as an outdoor unit, and can be used for heating and air-conditioning. However, currently there is a limit on how much heat they can produce in winter.

“Full coverage heating is possible in the shoulder months, but during the coldest months that falls to about 50 percent with ASHP and customers need to have a backup heating source,” Haase said.

Manufacturers are pushing the envelope to drive the cutover temperatures down, with latest models going far beyond the previous 30 degree cutoff to now as low as 13 below zero.

Great River is now hearing a clamoring from customers who want more renewable energy options.

“ASHPs are incredibly efficient, and with wind energy as part of our portfolio people can pay for the electricity to run them using renewable energy,” Haase said.

The ASHP technology can be found on the water heater market, and in styles similar looking to conventional water heaters.

Hamilton said costs for air-source heat pump water heating systems are coming down, but still cost about twice as much as a traditional natural gas or electric water heater.

“Some of that cost for most consumers is paying for an intangible benefit of being a leader and showcasing that this technology actually works in Minnesota,” said Hamilton.

Less costly to run for day-to-day electric energy consumption, air source water heaters are about three times more efficient than traditional water heaters. Consumers who choose to buy wind electricity to run their water heaters create an even greater carbon footprint reduction.

A technology widely used in Europe, air-source heat pumps are an efficient source for heating, cooling and water heating. When powered by electricity produced by renewable sources, such as solar or wind, natural gas use could be reduced by around 90 percent.

Electric car technology is a utility Hamilton also highlighted as a fast moving target. An E-car’s reliance on power companies and the financial growth offered in that industry is what Hamilton noted as driving advancement. In response to greater demand for renewables, she said power companies are realizing they can increase their load by encouraging electric vehicles.

“More people are buying cars in Minnesota because they are interested in decreasing their carbon footprint, and there are nice deals with power companies for charging at night when the winds blow more strongly here,” she said.

While there are about 8,000 electric cars running in the state currently, Hamilton believes predictions that put over a million electric cars on the state’s roads by 2030. Electric busses are another area she sees many cities turning to.

In the big picture, she noted decision-makers within the power and utility industry are saying coal is on its way out.

“It’s just a matter of time before companies make the business decision that wind plants are cheaper than running a coal plant, and as things are changing quickly we need to make sure we are adopting new technologies and energy policies,” she said.