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Massive Duluth lights show goes green

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Bentleyville gates
Visitors to Bentleyville walk through a large gate on Friday, Dec. 18, 2009.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

The Bentleyville "Tour of Lights" annual lighting display has grown so large that this year that founder Nathan Bentley moved it from Cloquet to Duluth's Bayfront Festival Park.

With its 14 miles of lights strung through trees, multi-color tunnels, glowing deer and special displays that include a Christmas light ship and replica lift bridge, Bentleyville's glow lifts from Duluth's harbor-front park to the freeway and hillside beyond.  

View a slideshow of the Bentleyville 'Tour of Lights'

But all that shine will eat about 52,000 amps of electricity -- something not lost visitors.

"Yeah, we already asked ourselves that," said local college student Rob Rodgers, who is from British Colombia. "I wonder what the electricity bill is for this thing?"

And it's not just the $4,000 electric bill.  If that that electricity comes from burning coal, the process releases carbon into atmosphere, which scientists say contributes to global warming.  The amount of power lighting Bentleyville would spew 144,000 thousand pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

That bothered Duluth architect Doug Zaun, a partner in Wagner and Zaun Architecture which prides itself on green design. For $576, Wagner and Zaun architecture purchased enough certified carbon credit to offset the 52,000 amps of electric power.  

Crowds at Bentleyville
Crowds at Bentleyville on Friday, Dec. 18, 2009.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

The credit was arranged by the Portland, Oregon based non-profit, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which connects green energy buyers like Wagner and Zaun with sellers -- in this case the Prairie Star Wind Farm east of Austin.

"The idea was, not to sort of go over there and pull the plug on the lights, but to participate in a positive way," Zaun said. ""And we were familiar with carbon offsets."

Wagner and Zaun bought a renewable energy certificate. The credit certifies that that amount of electricity has been generated carbon free. When added to the electric grid, it offsets the carbon created from generating that much power with coal.

"This was a way to sort of participate I guess, indirectly in Bentleyville in a creative way so we could have our holiday lights, but also sort of reduce the impact of those," Zaun said.

The certificates certify the green power generated actually was generated, and not otherwise under contract, said Margie Gardner, CEO of Bonneville Environmental Foundation. A third party, Green-e.org monitors and certifies the transactions.

"There are standards and programs in place to ensure that you're actually getting the product that you're being sold, and that it's a real reduction in carbon," Gardner said.

Bentleyville castle
Visitors walk through the Bentleyville light display on Dec. 18, 2009.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Even if the green power is some distance away, it counts.

Certificate sales nationwide jumped four fold from 2005 to 2008, Gardner said.  According to the non-profit group Forest Trends, such transactions voluntarily offset 123 million metric tons of carbon in the United States last year.

As a go-between between energy buyers and sellers, Gardner's foundation makes some money, which it invests back into programming like environmental education.

As it turns, out Bentleyville didn't need the carbon credit because the city decided to buy wind-generated power for the attraction. So Wagner and Zaun could have saved its $600 bucks.

But Bentleyville has inspired a doubling of the amount of carbon set aside.

Many visitors, though, likely are unfamiliar with efforts to ensure the attraction uses "clean energy."

They just know the lights look good.

"It's amazing," said Jamie Gallay, of Nashwauk. "We're very very impressed.  Very, very cool."

Bentleyville went over the 100,000 visitors mark last weekend, a figure officials expect to double before unplugging the lights New Year's weekend.