North House Folk School, Lloyd Kahn, and the Cook County Local Energy Project

The North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior, hosted its third Northern Sustainability Symposium from May 4–6. The featured speaker was Lloyd Kahn, blogger, author and publisher of a series of books about handmade houses, tiny houses, and funky shelter. I heard his talk Friday morning about “The Sustainable Homestead,” in which he related some methods he’s used since building his urban homestead in the early 1970s. It was fascinating and well done and I will probably write more about that later. His latest book is Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter.

Lloyd Kahn at the Gunflint Tavern

Lloyd Kahn at the Gunflint Tavern

Another presentation on Friday was done by the Cook County Local Energy Project or CCLEP. This 501c3 group was formed by local residents in 2008 “to coordinate a local response to the worldwide transition away from fossil fuel-based energy sources.” The group currently has one half-time employee and a number of volunteers that research, coordinate, and implement projects with a focus on local energy efficiency and production.

One such project, the subject of a fairly detailed presentation, is “Forest Biomass Heating and Electricity.” This project examined in detail the ability of Cook County to use biomass, basically different forms of woody material from the forest, for generation of heat and electricity. The study compared the use of woody biomass to the continued use of fossil fuels, and the results were highly encouraging.

Cook County has abundant woody biomass available on state, federal, and private land. The current harvest is 75% below the estimated sustainable harvest. The current waste amount of 8,500 dry tons is sufficient for district heating in Grand Marais or Cook County. At the sustainable limit, the waste would total approximately 23,000 dry tons.

My own summary of this study would emphasize the following:

  • After investments in infrastructure for district heating, Cook County and Grand Marais can meet all heating needs with currently and locally available waste biomass. At maximum sustainable harvest levels, three times more waste biomass would be available for use.
  • Emissions for all heating options would be under allowable thresholds.
  • Infrastructure investment is needed and can be expensive; installing pipes that carry hot water for a district heating system can cost $180-200 per foot. The payback period for some parts of the system may be more than 20 years.
  • All options studied in this plan have lower annual operating and maintenance costs than existing fossil fuel heating systems.
  • Spending money on a local resource, rather than fossil fuels, would keep more money circulating locally; “In other communities, $0.26 – $0.86 re-spent locally for every dollar spent on local bioenergy fuels.”

I am impressed by the work of this group, which includes an impressive mix of studies and hands-on projects, such as the projects below, and summarized at their web site here:

12 Simple Steps for Energy Efficiency Program

Energy Efficiency Home Audit House Party Program

Angry Trout Cafe Heat Recovery Project

North Shore Ride Share Website

Cook County Community Center Planning Committee

Energy Curriculums for Local Grade Schools

Grand Marais Recreation Area Bathhouse Solar Hot Water Installation

Grand Marais/ Cook County Energy Planning Process

Home Energy Savings Workshop

I enjoyed the Northern Sustainability Symposium tremendously, and feel that I learned a ton of great info. I will definitely return.

Floating cabin at the Folk School

Floating cabin at the Folk School

Carving in Grand Marais

Carving in Grand Marais


Grand Marais harbor and the Folk School

Grand Marais harbor and the Folk School

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities