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Red Wing turns to the sun

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Rich Huelskamp built this geodesic dome house in Red Wing. "The whole intent of the project was to reach one-hundred percent sustainability and that's what we did," said Huelskamp.

RED WING — Perched on the edge of the Red Wing YMCA pool, Richard Huelskamp appears an unlikely candidate to be among Minnesota foremost experts in renewable energy.

But his resume carries four levels of expertise — minus his current life guarding duties, anyway.

The gregarious, semi-retired 62-year-old Winona State graduate spent about two decades working for the Minnesota State Energy Office before transitioning to the public sector in 2003. He's the current owner of The Sun's Warmth, a business to educate, design and build renewable energy projects across the state. Huelskamp has also spent the last decade creating renewable energy curriculum at seven Minnesota colleges or universities, including the University of Minnesota and Winona State.

But Huelskamp also practices what he preaches.

Twelve years ago, Huelskamp and his wife, Ellen, bought 18 acres atop Red Wing's rural bluffland to build a geodesic-domed home. The unique design has allowed the building to function almost exclusively on renewable energy sources, while remaining entirely off the energy grid until last fall.

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"The whole interest of the project was trying to reach 100 percent sustainable, which we've done," said Huelskamp, who offers frequent public tours of his home and estimates his educational efforts have reached 15,000 people.

That personal effort is now being reflected in Red Wing's embrace of sustainable energy. Work is currently being wrapped up on the city's fifth and sixth solar projects, which are projected to save citizens $1.6 million over the next four decades.

Thanks to the state's ever first public-private solar partnership, Red Wing paid for just 9 percent of the nearly $2 million solar push.

"The city of Red Wing is very lucky to have people like that to offer expertise, and have a city council that really encourages staff to look at ways to reduce our carbon footprint and our environment impact," said Red Wing Public Works Deputy Director Jay McCleary, who kick-started the city's solar efforts in 2011.

Huelskamp's personal system is more diverse than Red Wing's all-solar setup. His home is heated by a combination of three sources: a 20-foot, south-facing solarium; a wood-burning fireplace; and hot water tubes that run throughout the concrete floor. The unique construction requires only the sun for heat until temperatures dip below 20 degrees, Huelskamp said.

The home's water is heated by five large solar thermal panels on the roof of a nearby shed, which is then pumped to the house for use in the tubes, bathrooms and kitchen.

Huelskamp also has a small wind turbine an elevated solar electric panels that tracks the sun's movement across the sky for optimal energy creation. Those devices create about 10 hours of electricity.

Electrical and heating bills for the geodesic home have dropped to roughly a third of a typical Red Wing residence. However, the equipment carries of a price tag of $30,000.

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While Red Wing and a few of its residents have already embraced renewable energy sources, Sen. Matt Schmit, D-Red Wing, feels the 2013 solar standard was a legislative compromise that sets the stage for others to do the same.

The legislation calls for a maximum rebate of 25 percent or $2,500 for residential homes, whichever is less.

"It's pretty clear this is the direction Minnesota will be moving in the years ahead, but we have to do so in a responsible manner," said Schmit, who supported the legislation requiring 1.5 percent solar by 2020. "You don't want to end up biting off too much of the apple.

"We're after a slow, steady growth curve. I think we were able to strike that balance in 2013."

Red Wing paves way for Minnesota's solar push

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Rich Huelskamp built a geodesic dome house with solar panels and a wind power generator in Red Wing. "The whole intent of the project was to reach one-hundred percent sustainability and that's what we did," said Huelskamp.

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