Growing up in Minnesota, winter – for me – meant playing hockey. Walking to the local rink and skating with my friends on weeknights for maybe an hour or two. Saturdays and Sundays meant skating for four or five hours. All of this skating was done on outdoor ice in Cottage Grove.
In 1972, we moved to Red Wing over Thanksgiving vacation. The following Monday, I started at a new school and didn’t know any of my sophomore classmates. That first day, though, I found out hockey practice started that week. So, it was early December and we were back on the ice. I quickly met my new teammates, some of whom became lifelong friends. One in particular, our goalie, was the best man in my wedding and I was the best man in his. We didn’t know it then, but we were fortunate to be able to practice and play our entire season outdoors, keeping good ice from early December into March.
Over the years, I have witnessed the Red Wing community grow and change in ways I never would have imagined. Now outdoor ice is a rarity in Southern Minnesota. One month, maybe five weeks, is now about all you can hope for when it comes to outdoor ice. Working with the Red Wing Public Works Department, I know this first hand. In December, our crews work around the clock, if and when the temperatures are cold enough, to get the outdoor ice ready so the kids can go skating over Christmas vacation. Even if they do get ice by late December, the fear is that we will see another year with a January thaw bringing 40+ degree temperatures and melting all of the ice.
For me, and many people my age, outdoor ice rinks were a major part of life in the winter. Minnesota has the nickname “The State of Hockey.” Kids like me were called “Rink Rats.” Hockey has always been a part of my life: playing, coaching, reffing, and for the last 35 years my wife and I have been minor officials for the Red Wing Boys High School Hockey Team. But, the players are different now. They play indoors. No one in southern Minnesota counts on outdoor ice even for practices, and kids today don’t know what being a “Rink Rat” means. For me, it is a sad reality that the weather is just too warm to support outdoor skating anymore.
It’s not just quality ice that we are losing; it is affecting our communities, too. The city council had to make a very difficult decision several years ago. Making ice is a time consuming process, and it is expensive. Flooding rinks 24 hours a day means paying overtime for crews. This simply is not cost effective. So, in Red Wing, there are no longer neighborhood skating rinks all around town. Just one outdoor hockey facility is left because of the economics. Our winters have changed drastically over my lifetime and yours.
Climate change is happening. As individuals and communities we need to find ways to make a difference. The scientific observations match what I am seeing on the ground: that Minnesota’s winters are warming faster than any other state in America.
Hockey may have helped shape my entry into my community, but it is not the reason I have stayed. I have spent the last 45 years living in Red Wing, a beautiful city, tucked in the bluffs along the mighty Mississippi River. Most citizens here understand that we are responsible for making sure the natural beauty and the surrounding landscape is preserved. There is a realization here that we need to make good decisions today for future generations ahead.
The City of Red Wing has been a leader on environmental issues and as a community has not been afraid to embrace new ideas. In 2012, the City Council approved a recommendation from staff to install individual solar voltaic systems on several major city buildings. But, there was a catch. The process to purchase these systems meant putting together a partnership to “Buy Minnesota-Made Solar Panels”, get funding through Xcel Energy’s Solar Rewards Program, and sell the federal energy credits and accelerated depreciation to a private company from California in exchange for partial funding of the project. And, one more small catch. This had never been done before in Minnesota, and we (mostly me) were not sure if this was legal. But, our City Council could see the possibilities and gave us the go ahead. The project was designed to have three parts of equal importance: save money, reduce the city’s carbon footprint, and educate others on our process.
Today, the city has six separate buildings that receive solar electric power from five different arrays. One of those buildings is our 1905 City Hall that is on the National Register for Historic Places. It took some creativity by the engineers from All Energy Solar, but they made it possible to use new technology on the old building. Another noteworthy building is our vehicle maintenance shop. This building’s solar panels now produce more electricity each year than it uses, and all of the winter heating for this building is done with the used motor oil from changing the oil on city vehicles throughout the year. Together, this makes the building carbon-negative for the year.
The city has 12 major buildings whose monthly energy consumption is tracked by the State of Minnesota’s B3 Benchmarking program. Using 2011 as our benchmark, these 12 buildings have seen a decline in baseline CO2 of 68% since 2017. This was accomplished because city staff have continued to be dedicated to ongoing efforts to look for new and innovative ways to reduce energy consumption – installing new more efficient heating and cooling equipment, converting to LED lighting systems, replacing old windows with more energy efficient ones, and installing occupancy sensors. I am proud to be part of a community that has a long history of doing what is best for our environment, a history that continues today and, I am sure, will continue well into the future.
For me, the biggest difference I can make is to tell other people how they can help fight climate change. I retired from the city two and a half years ago, but I am still doing my part to fulfill one of the principles of the city’s Solar Energy Projects: education. Being an advisor to Red Wing’s Sustainability Commission, speaking to individuals and small business owners through Xcel Energy’s Partners in Energy Program, and presenting to various groups about Red Wing’s efforts to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions have helped others realize that it can be possible in their community as well.
A long season of outdoor ice will likely never return to southern Minnesota, but if each of us is willing to do our small part, and then partner with others to do even more, we may be able to slow the climate changes that are affecting the places, people, and special aspects of Minnesota that make it our home.
As a longtime season ticket holder for the University of Minnesota Hockey Team – GO GOPHERS!