The Indian Creek Nature Center and Alliant Energy used cutting-edge technology to build a smart "living building" designed to research the long-term benefits of photovoltaics and NetZero construction.
"Nature, science, and facts are non-partisan," said Indian Creek Nature Center executive director John Myers. "Technology is an extension of nature. The two not only interoperate, tech and the environment complement each other."
Science and technology are also good for business. The Indian Creek Nature Center (ICNC) is Iowa's only private nonprofit nature center. The organization's headquarters and new Amazing Space "living building" is an energy NetZero facility nestled in a grove of oak trees on the edge of a sloping prairie dotted with both wildflowers and solar panels. The new building is a 12,000-square-foot environmental education center, Myers explained, and is "under certification by the International Living Future Institute to become a Living Building. This certification is far beyond LEED standards and focuses on truly sustainable practices that restore, not degrade the environment."
The nonprofit's mission is to promote sustainable development by encouraging environmental education and deploying best-in-class green technology. ICNC manages nearly 300 acres of land and hosts thousands of annual visitors. "We believe a balance is found," Myers said, when technology and nature are properly integrated. "We have adopted technologies that further engage [the community] and allow us to research ... weather stations, energy production and demand monitoring, and high-efficiency [storage] techniques."
The Nature Center's smart campus is powered by thousands of photovoltaic panels, a geothermal network, occupancy sensors, daylight monitors that regulate light output levels, and an electrical distribution that consists of 160 circuits throughout the building, Myers said. "Each one of these circuits is connected to a web-connected gateway device which allows us to monitor electric usage in real time and view trend data. This information is output to a web dashboard which we can view anytime and make quick decisions to maximize our energy efficiency," he said.
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Devising and constructing the living building was a community endeavor. My father, Rich Patterson, was Myers' predecessor and along with business and community partners made major investments in green technology in the 1980s and 1990s. We spent summers restoring natural wetlands that now filter the Nature Center's drinking water, and winters installing low-flow toilets. "Nature centers across the country are frequently supported by consumer investment and business partnerships," he told me during the Amazing Space launch in 2016.
"Smart companies understand the need for good environmental stewardship," Myers said. "[The Nature Center] values energy efficiency for many reasons. Environmental protection is one reason. Because nonprofits operate with slim margins we also have to be business leaders. By investing in technology early we can show, rather than tell, other businesses [tech] innovation saves money and grows a path to the future."
The Nature Center's business partner Alliant Energy agrees. Alliant provides electric service to 530,000 customers and natural gas service to 235,000 customers in over 700 communities in Minnesota and Iowa. The living building is an experiment for both organizations to learn more about producing and storing renewable energy. "Solar energy is key in making the building sustainable and educational," said Doug Kopp, president of Alliant Energy's Iowa branch in a statement. "[The Amazing Space] will provide our customers with a new way to learn what it takes to become sustainable and how solar energy can help."
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The grid system solar array pumps out 105 kilowatts and combines 420 roof- and ground-mounted Integrated Power panels. "We chose [the grid system] for two reasons," Myers said. "First, it allows us to partner with Alliant Energy, our local utility, to conduct research on how to best utilize solar across their territory. Second, we needed a reliable backup system. Battery technology is not currently cost-effective or sustainable because too many dangerous chemicals are still used in production, nor did we want a combustion based back-up generator on the property."
Constructing the Amazing Space in a method cohesive with the environment was important to the Nature Center but also presented a big challenge, Myers conceded. "While it is inherent for [the ICNC] to respect the natural world, most building projects don't look at the end-game of environmentally sustainable design. With a short-sided viewpoint we could have limited our overall construction footprint by not building a large solar field in the middle of the prairie."
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The long-term deal, Myers said, will allow both Alliant and the Nature Center to make long-term business decisions and share discoveries about optimal panel orientation, solar tracking systems, and methods of connecting solar panels to the grid. For example, Myers said, "in Iowa tracking mount systems which follow the sun throughout the day may not create an increase in production substantial enough to justify their increased cost. Iowa has lots of wide open spaces with good sun throughout the entire day. Tracking systems may be more cost efficient in places such as Colorado, where sun is often blocked by mountains during certain times of the day."
One of the biggest challenges with solar technology is energy storage. The research partnership also helps Alliant enhance and upgrade current electrical grid infrastructure and learn more about energy distribution. "The grid is antiquated," Myers said. "Our business partnership with renewable energy also helps provide incentive to upgrade a utility everyone uses, every day."
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When investing in technology, Myers said, "businesses should [consider] when [technology] actually improves overall efficiency and is the responsible thing to do. Indian Creek Nature Center made a conscious decision to walk away from some of the cool [green] tech items such as a solar-thermal hot water system, in-floor radiant heating, and greywater reclamation system because the financial payback wasn't there." Instead of investing in hip green tech, he said, companies and organizations should avoid trends and look for tech that simplifies business and enhances long-term ROI.
Walking through the restored prairie glistening with solar panels, Myers clearly has an appreciation for both technology and the environment. "Green tech is a good investment for any company," he said. "But the end-game isn't about making money. We invested in green tech because appreciating natural, wild places is a shared value. Science and education enhances everyone's appreciation of nature. For us, investing in green tech is investing in a high quality of life for everyone."
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