People who live on the North Shore of Lake Superior have always been a pioneering, hardy bunch.
The economy is usually poor, and they're used to living a bit off-the-land, depending on fishing, hunting, logging, and tourism.
Now they're trying to figure out how to produce their own energy.
Three students from the University of Minnesota-Duluth are putting up anemometers on a TV tower on Moose Mountain in Lutsen, Minn. The small cups spin in the wind and record the wind speed.
As they deploy their climbing gear, their professor, Mike Mageau, watches a little nervously.
"Two of them are mountain climbers," he says, "so they seem to think this will be no big deal."
Over the last couple of years, Mageau has been measuring the wind on the high ridge that runs along the Lake Superior shoreline.
"If you look at the statewide wind maps, they don't give us credit for having any wind along the North Shore of Lake Superior. But Grand Portage was interested in wind, and they did some monitoring," Mageau says.
The Grand Portage Band of Ojibway hired Mageau to advise them. The early efforts were primitive -- he put monitoring equipment just 45-feet up on a tower -- but even at that low altitude, he found wind speeds of 14 to 15 miles an hour.
"So we thought, 'Wow, there might be a lot of wind along the Sawtooth Range.'" he said.
He got a grant to install more anemometers, and he made sure they were 100 feet high.
"We found 15 to 20 mile-an-hour average wind speeds at the sites," Mageau says. "And it seems to get higher as you go northeast toward Grand Portage."
That's about the same as the average wind speeds at Buffalo Ridge, the part of Minnesota long considered the best for wind.
But Mageau doesn't advocate a big wind farm here, like you see down in southwest Minnesota. He says the idea is to put up one tower for each community on the shore. One big windmill could supply roughly half the electricity each town uses.
Mageau said he recognizes that some people are nervous about the idea. The North Shore is a natural treasure, and an important route for migrating birds. A separate group of University researchers is studying the migration routes and they hope to pinpoint whether the birds fly close to the lake, right along the peaks, or a little inland.
"So hopefully when we pick a wind site, we'll stay away from the birds," Mageau says.
If a wind tower is ever built here, the power would go to the town of Grand Marais, 20 miles north. And it would fit in with other projects local folks are working on, to become more energy self-sufficient.
Buck Benson owns the downtown hardware store. He says he and cafe owner George Wilkes and former arctic explorer Lonnie DePre hatched the idea over a fishing hole.
"We were fishing in the winter on a Boundary Waters trout lake, and we were grumbling about all this stuff, [wondering] what can we really do," Benson says. "And when we came back home, George kept prodding us, 'You know what we talked about...' So we formed a little group, and I think we've done good work since we started this organization."
It's called Cook County Local Energy Project, and volunteer committees are busy researching various ideas.
One team is pursuing the windmill idea, but Buck Benson says even if there's good wind and it wouldn't hurt the birds, the financing is tricky.
Whoever builds the windmill wouldn't install a huge bank of batteries. They would have to sell the power back to the local electric company, but the local company is bound by a contract that says it has to buy 95-percent of its energy from its wholesale supplier.
"It limits the choices we have of where we can sell this electricity, and how much we can sell it for," Benson says. "Because you don't have any bargaining chips there."
Another project the group is working on is a little closer to reality: a district heating system fueled by wood chips. The group has focused on an Italian-made boiler that produces a small amount of electricity as well as heat.
There's a ready-made source of fuel at the Hedstrom Lumber mill. Howard Hedstrom says the mill sells bark for landscaping in the summer and for fuel in the winter. While he currently has to haul it south to Duluth or north to Thunder Bay, it would be much more efficient to burn it right here.
"By the time you pay the freight there's not much left, and if it could be used locally, why not use it locally and save all that transportation cost?" Hedstrom says.
The mill could provide about half the fuel needed for the boiler; the other half could come from forest thinning, and from clearing that's done to protect homes from forest fires.
The city of Grand Marais has applied for a federal grant to pay for half the cost of the boiler. Grand Marais teamed up with the city of Ely, 70 miles inland, to write the grant application.
The Department of Energy program has a minimum grant size of $10 million and requires the money to be matched locally. Each city's project will cost about $12 million.
Cook County Local Energy Project team member George Wilkes says the capital costs could be paid off in less than 10 years, and the money that people now spend on fuel oil or propane would circulate locally as loggers and truckers are paid to bring biomass to the plant. Wilkes estimates it would keep nearly half-a-million dollars in the community each year.
Silver Bay is also getting into the local energy game. The city wants to take its business park off the grid. The idea is to produce renewable energy from wind, wood, and even biodiesel.
Consultant Bruce Carman says they'll recruit businesses whose waste can serve as feedstock for other businesses. For example, a manufacturer of log homes, or wood pellets, whose waste can be used in the biofuel boiler.
"Their energy costs are fixed over a long period of time," Carman says, "and if they have byproduct that can beneficially be used by another entity within the park, they further reduce their cost and enhance their bottom line."
Someday, wastewater from the Silver Bay sewage treatment plant could nurture algae for biodiesel that would provide electricity when the wind isn't blowing and the biomass supply runs low.
"Zero waste, zero emissions -- that's the ultimate goal of the park," Carman says.
Back at the tower in Lutsen, researcher Mike Mageau says it's not easy to produce local renewable energy. There are lots of issues, like financing, and concerns about aesthetics. He says he's just been trying to figure out if it's possible.
"Everybody now is pretty certain that it is, given the wind speeds. So now all these other issues will start to come to the table."
He'll monitor the wind speeds for at least another year. As for the district heating project, Grand Marais will find out next month whether it got the federal grant.