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Published May 03 2010

Rothsay students on a mission

Rothsay students recently stifled public speaking fears to give testimony at the Minnesota state Capitol. And they’ve scaled their town’s 13-foot prairie chicken statue and hung out on their school’s roof.

They’ve tackled these daring acts in the name of a one-of-a-kind project with an ambitious goal: reduce Rothsay’s energy consumption by 10 to 15 percent by 2015.

Fergus Falls, Minn.-based Otter Tail Power Co. enlisted the students to help with the project launched last spring with Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s blessing. Now it seems the community of 500 may hit its goal this year.

“The students have had a key leadership role from Day 1,” said Kim Pederson, an Otter Tail project manager. “That’s the kind of ownership you love to see with a project.”

The $300,000 Otter Tail Power initiative is part of a larger bid to comply with Pawlenty’s Next Generation Energy Act, which aims for a 1.5 percent drop in electricity use per year.

The company has conducted free energy audits for about 100 homes and businesses and offered rebates on energy efficient lighting and appliances. It’s about to announce the winner of a $12,000 energy home makeover.

On an unseasonably cold, rainy October day, students knocked on every door in town. They asked residents to sign a pledge that they’d cut down on their energy use by, say, only washing full loads of laundry or air-drying dishes. More than 60 percent of residents obliged.

An energy leadership team pitched small changes to fellow students. Elementary classrooms now have a point person, sporting a smiley-face Earth badge, in charge of making sure lights and computers are turned off.

High school students might be a bit slow in embracing those changes, says junior Shannon Backstrom, but, “the elementary is super-duper excited about it. If you have the badge for the week, you’re the coolest person in the class.”

Backstrom was one of the Rothsay students who traveled to St. Paul last month to tell the Senate Energy Committee about the project: “I had a cracking voice and sweaty palms, but I went through with it.”

Students produced a one-minute video called “Make the Change,” which features footage of the giant prairie chicken. It guest-stars 6-foot 10-inch North Dakota State University forward Jordan Aaberg, a Rothsay alum, who shares the line, “Letting the little things make a big difference,” with a tiny fifth-grader on the school roof.

The video has already garnered more than 1,200 views at the online site YouTube.

“The kids have really run with this project,” says Dean of Students Ehren Zimmerman. “They are driving the ship.”

Meanwhile, the school adjusted thermostats and turned off exhaust fans at night. It installed compact fluorescent lighting in the gym and put out a call for bids to replace its inefficient heating system.

Based on early data, the town is poised to achieve an almost 10 percent energy drop in 2010. Says student adviser Colleen Brandt, “It’s really exciting to be a small town and make a big change.”

The students' video:


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529