Mary & Mike Mueller, WinthropA passion for conservation
A Passion for Conservation
When you ask Mary and Mike Mueller about conservation on their farm near Winthrop Minnesota you can feel their passion for wildlife and the outdoors. Their story speaks to a thirty-year farm landscape transformation from corn and soy field monocultures to a vibrant ecosystem of wildlife habitat renewal. “We were one of the first postage stamps of habitat, so it wasn’t like there was a lot of wildlife that was here,” Mike recalled, “it’s quite substantial now as far as wildlife goes.”
The couple began restoring Mike’s family farm to native prairie and wetlands when they moved back to the farm in 1989. You can hear the excitement in their voices as they list the diversity of birds that have returned to their farm today. “The rarest thing we’ve had here was a couple of Ibis that stuck around for about a month, and a few sandhill cranes last summer,” recalled Mary, “I wish we would have kept a journal as things were changing.”
“I’m a duck hunter and a muskrat trapper, and I like the outdoors. So I had dreamt all my life of having a place to recreate on. We’ve been able to turn it into that right outside of our living room, ” said Mike.
In 2012 the Muellers took their farm transformation effort one step farther and installed a 24kW solar array as a part of their conservation mission and, to put their farm on the road to self-sufficiency.
Self-sufficiency and Conservation
Mary and Mike wanted to become more self-sufficient while reducing electricity costs and also reducing their carbon footprint. Taking action to curb the impacts of climate change on the farm’s local wildlife populations brought their conservation values into alignment with the practical demands of their farm and business.
The couple had tracked the development of energy technology for some time. From hydrogen cells, to wind, to what they eventually settled on was a 24 kW solar installation from 10k Solar – a Minnesota solar manufacturing company.
The event that pushed the Muellers to put up a solar array was experiencing a four-day power outage during the middle of summer. Beyond providing some difficulty running the day-to-day operations of their farm they lost several freezers full of food. Since the couple grows most of their own food the loss was especially difficult. Now, with an additional battery backup Mike and Mary hardly notice when there’s a power outage. The electricity that the solar panels generate has become a vital part of their livestock business operation.
Beyond their commitment to revitalize the land, the Muellers thought it was important to help revitalize their community as well. Their solar array came from a Minnesota manufacturer and a local electric company installed the project. Supporting local jobs in their community was a vital part of their decision making process.
“It fits in with our philosophy,” says Mary, “What we’ve looked for here is a system that is sustainable for the land but also financially sustainable as well. We think you need both because people can’t do stuff if it doesn’t pay for itself.”
The Muellers project that the array will pay for itself over the next 30 years, and will help stabilize their future utility costs.
A Change in Tone from Their Rural Electric Co-op
The Mueller’s solar array was one of the first in McLeod Electric Co-op’s service territory. Initially, the co-op located about 50 miles west of Minneapolis was helpful and accommodating as the solar installation took shape. The Muellers said that the co-op saw a benefit to the electricity distribution system, especially in the summer during times of peak electricity demand when and stress is put on the grid.
“It was really great at first,” recalled Mary & Mike.
That’s why they were surprised when last year an editorial appeared in their local paper on behalf of Minnesota’s electric co-ops that changed the conversation entirely. People with local energy projects, like the Muellers, were being accused of taking advantage of their co-op neighbors. In some co-ops “freeloader” became the label used against on-farm energy generators like the Muellers. . The “freeloader” label then became the justification for instituting fixed fees on co-op members who invested in their own local energy projects, local co-op members who are eligible for compensation under Minnesota’s net-metering law. Net-metering allows for people with wind and solar installations under 40 kW in generating capacity size to be compensated for the power they put onto the grid.
While the McLeod co-op grandfathered the Muellers into their previous fee structure (meaning they don’t pay the new increased net-metering fee) the fee has been a barrier for other wind and solar projects in the co-op. The Muellers believe that only one new solar installation has gone up since the new fee was enacted.
After their experience of their co-op implementing the new net-metering fee the Muellers became active in a campaign to oppose net-metering fee implementation across Minnesota during this year’s legislative session. Mary authored a letter detailing their experience that landed on Governor Dayton’s desk, was referred to during debate in the Minnesota House and Senate, and was submitted as public comment to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
“Solar has worked for us,” said Mike, “but if they’re going to set up unfair fees that could be the game changer. It changes the economics of it all.”
Mike and Mary’s work to conserve natural resources continues, as both practitioners and advocates for change.