The Mercer Library Solar Energy System – Leveraging a Sense of Place to Galvanize a Local Response to Global Climate Change.
By Wende Thiede, Margaret Mooney, and Steve Ackerman
In 2015, two instructors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), Steve Ackerman and Margaret Mooney, developed and delivered a Massive Open Online Learning Course (MOOC) to raise awareness around the changing weather and climate of the Great Lakes Region. Over 7,000 people participated. The 4-week learning experience highlighted the four seasons via short lectures and activities covering Great Lakes weather and observed changes in climate using data from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the National Climate Assessment (NCA) and the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI). Special interviews emphasized societal impacts of climate change unique to the region. In addition, individuals were challenged to change one behavior each week that could collectively slow climate change and mitigate impacts.
A sense of place was integral in effectively conveying course content. The mid-latitude location and unique influence of five massive fresh-water lakes produce exhilarating weather systems in the region. Winters are cold and snowy; spring brings thunderstorms, heavy rains and tornadoes; summers are hot and humid and the transition to autumn paves the way for especially windy storms like the one that sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald. Climate change adds to complexity. Numerous observations demonstrate that the climate of the Great Lakes Region is changing. Average temperatures are getting warmer and extreme heat events are occurring more frequently. Total precipitation is increasing and heavy precipitation events are becoming more common. Winters are getting shorter and duration of lake ice cover is decreasing. Each week the Great Lakes MOOC shared observed data before focusing on people and communities adjusting to these changes, often by featuring videos from ‘Climate Wisconsin,’ an educational multimedia project featuring stories of climate change supported by WICCI research. From the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race to ice fishing, fly fishing and farming, Climate Wisconsin conveys stories of climate change on the local level.
The Great Lakes MOOC was taught on-line to a world-wide audience. The discussion forum was active and interesting, common in many MOOC’s. A big difference however, was weekly discussion groups held at 21 public libraries throughout Wisconsin, providing a unique community access opportunity. Why libraries? Libraries are neighborhood mainstays and very often the heart of a community. Public libraries are the number one point of online access for people without internet connections at home. Patrons often use their public library to gain knowledge to address social problems. And while climate change takes place on global and regional scales, it is experienced on the local level. The objective of library discussion groups was to further connect to people’s sense of place and inspire responses to climate change based on community values.
Forty-three libraries around Wisconsin applied to host weekly discussions. Mercer Library, in far northern Wisconsin, was one of the 21 sites chosen where UW staff would facilitate weekly discussions to compliment online content in the Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region MOOC. Several members of the Friends of the Mercer Public Library participated and attended the weekly discussions led by Margaret Mooney. When the 4-week course was over, the participants felt compelled to somehow act to help slow the warming trend that was already jeopardizing the health of the north woods and waters.
At the next Friends meeting president Judy Ivey, a MOOC participant, suggested the Friends explore the possibility of having a solar energy system installed at the library. They would raise money to pay for it, and as an educational tool, it would fit the library’s mission. Though some were skeptical of the idea—is there really enough sun this far north to be a viable energy source?—they continued to discuss the possibility and in July, 2015 received a quote for a system to be placed on the library roof. Yikes! Sticker shock and so much to learn about the items listed on the quote. The project was put on hold in hopes that prices would drop and to allow time for more research.
Meanwhile, the group pursued other energy-saving, carbon-reduction projects. The MOOC discussion groups were the catalyst that changed thinking and inspired action. The Friends decided their main goal would be to use their funds to make the library more energy-efficient. They obtained an energy-assessment of the building that resulted in changes to the lighting and upgrading the drinking fountain to a version with a bottle filling station, procuring reusable water bottles for patrons to purchase.
Eventually the solar energy movement gained momentum. One Friends member solicited information from a nearby school that had a system on their roof, and Christopher LaForge, Great Northern Solar, gave an informative presentation to the community. LaForge’s talk was inspiring, educational, and convinced the group that sun energy could be harnessed in the North, especially in winter when there is reflection from the snow.
Next step was for the Friends to inform the town board of their intention and to get preliminary approval. The board unanimously agreed that the Friends should continue to get quotes for a ground-mounted, rather than a rooftop, system. After reviewing four additional quotes, the Friends chose a system from Let It Shine Energy Systems in Washburn, Wisconsin in March, 2017. In April the Friends made their official appeal to the town board for final approval, but hesitation and questions from Friends members and board members stalled the decision until a special meeting was held in June. Within less than 24 hours of an email notification of that board meeting to library supporters, 108 residents signed a letter of support, and 60 showed up at the meeting on a weekday morning. The board was swayed to approve the project with the stipulation that the Friends maintain the system. Construction began in September and was completed by mid-October, 2017.
Town Board chairman, John Sendra, had attended the LaForge presentation and was in full support of the project because of its educational value for area youth. “One of our students may someday, learning from this project, be that scientist that really makes an efficient type of energy, an energy that is non-polluting, an energy that helps us all,” Sendra said at the dedication ceremony.
Sixty-six Mercer area residents showed up on a cold, blustery day in October 2017 for the unveiling and dedication of Mercer Library’s solar energy system, a project that began with a spark of an idea nearly three years earlier from community discussions within the library.
The photovoltaic system installed in the backyard of the Mercer Library is the only one of its kind in the area. It consists of 18, 1 by 2 meter photovoltaic Canadian Solar modules arranged in an array of 3 horizontal rows, 12 X 3 meters, fixed to an adjustable rack to allow the angle to be changed with the seasons. At full capacity each panel can produce 340 watts of power for a total of 6.12 kilowatts, expected to save $1000 per year in energy cost. The DC power generated by the sun is converted to 240 volt AC power in a Solar Edge inverter installed in the building and synchronized to the building’s electrical panel. The system is connected wirelessly to the library’s internet system, allowing remote monitoring by anyone on the internet. The cost of $23,000 was paid entirely with funds donated to the Friends of the Mercer Public Library. (Note: to individual home owners the cost could be 30-50% less because of tax incentives and rebates which were not available to the Friends, a non-profit organization. (https://www.energysage.com/solar/cost-benefit/solar-incentives-and-rebates/ ).
Since its installation in October of 2017 through May of 2021, the library’s photovoltaic system has produced 21.97 megawatt hours of electricity, preventing over 17 tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere!
In summary, the MOOC and the weekly discussions provided a catalyst that shifted the collective thinking of the Friends of the Mercer Public Library. A sense of place provided the motivation. The Friends followed up with research on solar energy and community action, convincing the town board and town residents to install a 6.12 kW solar energy system that not only slows climate change but also educates area youths. The huge support for the Friends and their proposal turned a little idea into a realized project that the small, northern Wisconsin town of Mercer can be truly proud of.
Members active on the project:
Wendy Thiede, president of the Friends of the Mercer Public Library, project leader
Judy Ivey, vice president and former president
Hedda Patzke, former secretary
Opal Roberts, treasurer
Teresa Schmidt, library director
Richard Thiede, technical advisor
Rick Duley, technical advisor