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Patrick Springer, Published January 03 2010

Rothsay embraces energy challenge

P.T. Jensen will be taking a close look at lots of houses in Rothsay, Minn., early in the new year with an eye toward saving energy.

Jensen, a local electrician recently certified as an energy auditor, is on the front lines of an initiative by Otter Tail Power Co., called the Rothsay Energy Challenge.

The town of 500, located 35 minutes east of Fargo-Moorhead, is striving to reduce electricity consumption by 10 to 15 percent over the next three to five years.

Otter Tail Power, based in Fergus Falls, Minn., plans to spend $300,000 over two years on the energy conservation initiative.

That amounts to a lifetime cost of 3 cents for every kilowatt hour saved, cheaper than building new generating capacity, said Brenda Sandahl, Otter Tail Power’s manager for the community energy challenge program.

A similar conservation challenge involves the University of Minnesota at Crookston. Both are pilot projects to test the cost-efficiency of incentives to foster conservation.

Energy audits have been completed of city and school buildings. School officials are considering investments including geothermal and thermal storage, pending payback analysis and the availability of grants.

“No decisions have been made yet,” Sandahl said.

The pilot initiative, approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, includes several planned incentives:

Another boost: the West Central Initiative Fund contributed a grant to pay the estimated $25 home energy audit fee.

That means participation among homeowners in the home audits, initially estimated at one-third of Rothsay’s homes, might be more like two-thirds, increasing the potential for energy savings, Sandahl said.

Business owners deciding whether to invest in conservation measures want to see payback in less than 10 years, she said.

“A lot of businesses want it less than five, or they just can’t see doing it,” Sandahl added.

To help spur investment in conservation, Otter Tail Power will finance expenses for “customers in good standing” at a 1.9 percent interest rate.

The city of Rothsay is also trying to decide how far it can go in replacing equipment to improve efficiency.

“The big consumers for Rothsay are definitely water and wastewater systems,” said Chris Buckingham, a city council member.

Otter Tail Power chose Rothsay because of the town’s commitment to an energy conservation campaign, its manageable size and its proximity to the utility’s headquarters, Sandahl said.

“Our city gets behind projects,” Buckingham said. “Our community is really engaged.”

Elementary and secondary students in grades six through 12 are engaged in the cause, knocking on doors to ask residents to sign energy conservation pledges.

“They’ve been out pounding the pavement,” Sandahl said. “The school kids are very involved.”

In April, students will issue a report of their estimated energy savings. Otter Tail will report its results for 2010 energy savings to regulators in April 2011.

Can Rothsay meet the ambitious energy conservation goal of 10 to 15 percent in three to five years?

“For a small community like ours, I think 10 percent is obtainable,” Buckingham said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522