An eight-year journey with renewables, conservation, and efficiency at Audubon Center of the North Woods

CERTs thought it would be fun to shine a spotlight on the inspiring projects that some of Minnesota’s residential environmental learning centers have been implementing. These extraordinary places provide fun, formative experiences for people of all ages and foster a connection to the natural environment. We recently talked with Bryan Wood, Co-Executive Director of the Audubon Center of the North Woods.

Joel Haskard: What is the Audubon Center of the North Woods?

Audubon Center of the North Woods logo Bryan Wood: The Audubon Center of the North Woods (ACNW) is a non-profit 501(c3) residential environmental learning center. ACNW has been offering environmental education programming since 1971 and has educated over 200,000 k-12, college, graduate, family, Road Scholar, and community participants about the environment and our relationships to it. The Center does this through formal (we are a certified school—North Central Association—and field campus to Northland College, Hamline University, and others) and informal education programs, research initiatives, and community outreach that work to restore, maintain, and preserve environmental integrity. The Center uses nature, art, science, history, cultural studies, literature, adventure and team building to give hands-on experiences. ACNW brings people together to learn about our connections to each other and the natural world. Over the last eight years the Audubon Center has committed to an extensive program of renewable energy and has become one of the State’s leaders in this significant area.

Joel: What is the mission of the Audubon Center of the North Woods?

Bryan: To instill a connection and commitment to the environment in people of all communities through experiential learning.

Joel: It seems like over the last several years you have done a lot with energy efficiency and renewable energy. Can you tell us some about these projects?

Solar furnace and passive solar on Barn Bryan: In 2007, the Audubon Center initiated a Sustainable Energy Campaign to reduce our reliance upon fossil fuels and reduce our carbon footprint, with a goal of an 80% reduction from that year’s levels by 2017. Over the last several years, we have been able to add many conservation, efficiency, and renewable measures to help us get closer to that goal. The following are some of our accomplishments on campus.

Renewable Energy Technologies:

  1. Geothermal Heating & Cooling:
    • 65-ton, 206 feet deep closed vertical loop system consisting of 30 wells that provides heating and cooling for our Dining Hall/Office Building and Crosby Dormitory
  2. Solar Photovoltaic:
    • 31.5 kw solar photovoltaic system consisting of 9 dual tracking arrays
  3. Solar Domestic Hot Water:
    • 22 domestic solar hot water panels for our main dormitory, Crosby Lodge
    • 7 domestic solar hot water panels for our kitchen and Dining Hall
  4. Solar Hot Air:
    • 4’ x 10’ solar hot air panel supplying heat for the Climbing Wall Loft of our Barn
  5. Passive Solar:
    • 9 south-facing windows on the Climbing Wall Loft of our Barn that provide passive heating and lighting
  6. Wind:
    • 3.7 kw vertical axis wind turbine

3.7 kw vertical axis wind turbine Conservation:

  1. Added 16” of blown cellulose insulation in the attics, eves and crawl spaces of our Dining Hall/Office Building and Crosby Dormitory
  2. Added 3” foam sheet insulation, new siding and roof on Wildlife Barn
  3. Added blown cellulose insulation in attics and crawl spaces of Historic Schwyzer Lodge, and foam spray insulation of open air, unfinished basement
  4. Weather stripping on exterior doors of all buildings (25)
  5. Installation of low-flow .5 gpm aerators for all public bathroom and dormitory room sinks (44)
  6. Installation of low-flow 1.25 gpm showerheads for all showers (23)


  1. Campus-wide lighting upgrade to energy efficient CFLs and LEDs
  2. HVAC air handler programmable controls to shut off heating/cooling at periods of inactivity
  3. Temperature sensor to shut off geothermal system use when outside air is between 65-75F
  4. High Efficiency ECMs in walk-in coolers, freezers, and dormitory rooms
  5. Network-connected dormitory room thermostats to remotely adjust temperature to individual rooms for times of occupancy and inactivity

Joel: Any surprises (either good or bad) as you implemented these projects?

22 solar hot water collectors on Crosby Lodge Dorms Bryan: Everything takes longer than you expect with construction projects and getting things implemented. But a benefit to that is having the time to make sure things are being done properly and adjustments can be made. Weather plays a role in work completion timelines as well. Last June was so wet that work could not be done on the Barn because of soft ground and machinery that could not safely access the area, so that was delayed into mid-July. Our solar hot water system is a German system by Viesman, and our installers had not worked with Viesman before. The technology is very advanced and it took about 2 months of adjustments and figuring out how to program all the settings correctly before it was finally working optimally. Constant checking-in with contractors and on-site examinations was a crucial step in getting the desired results we wanted from each of the projects.

We are thrilled with the new installations now and have been monitoring propane and electric utilities to see production and savings. So far through nearly ¾ year of the solar hot water systems in place, we have cut our propane usage by over 50%. Our newest solar photovoltaic system was installed in December, and our January and February electric bills for the Dining Hall and Crosby Dormitory were 35% less than the previous year. The conservation and efficiency measures, combined with renewable energy generation are creating substantial results for us of lower fossil fuel usage and reduced energy costs.

Joel: Which project seems to catch the interest of visitors the most?

2 solar hot water collectors on Crosby Lodge Bryan: People love to see the solar hot water panels and the solar photovoltaic panels. The tracking of the solar photovoltaic panels catch peoples’ eyes and they are eager to understand how they work. Many people have never heard of solar hot water or hot air, and it has been fun to teach them about these very efficient (60-70% efficient) technologies.

Joel: Why did you choose the projects that you did?

Bryan: Our energy improvement projects have been based off of energy assessments by multiple energy companies that recommended various upgrades and projects. We have taken those inputs into consideration and tried to work on “biggest bang for the buck” projects first—choosing the projects that will reduce energy costs and protect the environment for the least amount of cost. That starts with conservation and efficiency measures usually, and then gets into renewable energy technologies. We still have many more projects we intend to implement, but we are off to a good start with our main triage areas now fixed.

Joel: What kind of educational programming have you crafted around these clean energy projects?

Bryan: These most recent upgrades within the past 2 years have been part of a coalition of Minnesota’s residential environmental learning centers (Deep Portage, Eagle Bluff, Long Lake, Laurentian and Wolf Ridge). We have come together to make a bigger impact on the State and our youth by collectively promoting sustainable energy systems at each of our facilities. In addition, we have created joint curriculum of 25 new energy-related activities for middle school aged students that cover the multiple renewable energy technologies, as well as conservation and efficiency measures. You can find more information about our work together at

Joel: How can the general public come out and learn more about these conservation measures and renewable energy projects?

7 solar hot water collectors on Dining Hall Bryan: The Audubon Center of the North Woods is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8am-4pm, and occasional weekends. People are welcome to come out to the Center to see our sustainable energy technologies first-hand, and learn from outside interpretive displays and our staff. In addition, members of the public are welcome to walk or ski our trails, free of charge. We offer several community events throughout the year where community members can come out to learn about our Center, and enjoy great programs and activities. You can visit our website at to see what is going on throughout the year. Click on the Energy sidebar to learn more about our Sustainable Energy Campaign.

Joel: Any final thoughts you would like to share?

Bryan: We hope that through our efforts in our Sustainable Energy Campaign that we encourage others to look at what they can do in their homes, their businesses and their schools. We all share this Earth and are connected to it and each other more intricately than we can possibly know. Whether it is for energy independence, saving money, or reducing our negative impact on this planet from the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, sustainable energy is a topic that should be of the utmost importance to us all. A healthy future is dependent upon a healthy planet, and it is our hope that through our energy actions, we inspire others to see what they can do to help.

Click here to learn more about renewable energy and energy efficiency at Audubon Center of the North Woods >>

See photos of their projects in a slideshow below.

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