Lake Superior parks unveil decarbonization plan
ISLE ROYALE — The five national parks on Lake Superior, including Isle Royale and Keweenaw National Historical Park, plan to decarbonize park operations over the next four years in what they hope will be a model for efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The ambitious plan, announced Saturday by the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation, will make the parks the first in the country to comprehensively decarbonize their buildings and vehicles through lowering emissions and reaching net-zero energy consumption.
An engineering study estimates it will cost $15 million to increase efficiency and replace diesel and other fossil fuels with sustainable energy technology at the parks, which also include Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin and Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota.
The speed and degree of the climate-related changes on Lake Superior made it important to act, said Tom Irvine, executive director of NPLSF, the official philanthropic partner of the five parks.
“Lake Superior is 10% of the freshwater on Earth, and it’s the fastest-warming lake on Earth,” he said. “Cold-water fisheries are dying off. Docks and marina and lighthouses and all kinds of really important cultural resources within the park are being affected by changes in the climate.”
The study, conducted by Willdan and Energy and Environmental Economics (E3), outlines what decarbonization would look like at each park. Work will begin this year.
Parks will incorporate solar panels, heat pumps and other technology. On the efficiency side, it also includes basic weatherization upgrades such as insulation and sealing windows — “all the same kind of tips that your power agency sends you every month with your bill,” Irvine said.
At Isle Royale National Park, 81 buildings will be retrofitted to heat pump water heaters and LED lights. The park also plans to add solar arrays and storage at off-grid locations at Mott, Windigo and Rock Harbor, replacing the diesel power there currently. They will add an estimated 1,500 kilowatts of solar capacity and 695 kilowatts of battery capacity.
Seven utility task vehicles will be replaced with electric vehicles, accompanied by charging stations.
“Mitigating climate-related vulnerabilities in parks is a National Park Service priority,” Isle Royale Superintendent Denise Swanke said in a statement. “The five Lake Superior parks are thrilled to be part of this collaborative partnership to invest in clean energy solutions.”
Keweenaw National Historical Park plans to retrofit six buildings to heat pump water heaters and LEDs. A grid-tied solar array with an estimated 331 kilowatts of solar capacity would be enough to provide 100% of the total annual electricity load.
Plans there also call for an all-electric fleet of vehicles, with charging stations for an estimated four vehicles.
Park Superintendent Wyndeth Davis said the efficiency and sustainability measures would be incorporated where possible into the park’s renovation of the Calumet & Hecla warehouse.
The project’s roots lie with Isle Royale. Former park superintendent Phyllis Green, now a NPLSF board member, started installing some solar at Windigo and Rock Harbor. But in conversations with Irvine, she said she regretted not having time to fully decarbonize the park, much of which still uses diesel generators.
“Time ran out, and she never got to finish it,” he said. “That had always stuck with me.”
About a year and a half ago, Irvine spoke with Eric Dayton, co-founder and CEO of Askov Finlayson, a Minnesota-based outdoor clothing company.
Finlayson asked him about potential projects the foundation was considering. Irvine brought up the idea of replacing diesel generators on Isle Royale.
Askov Finlayson became a seed investor for the plan, which also includes funding from other government, tribal and philanthropic groups. Most of the funding will come through the National Park Service, including new funds from the Inflation Reduction Act, Great American Outdoors Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation.
To broaden the impact, the plan grew to involve all five Lake Superior parks. Meetings have gone on with the park superintendents over the past year.
The project dovetails with the NPS’s priorities nationwide, Irvine said.
“Sometimes it just takes a really strong public-private partnership to work through complicated issues like this with a government agency,” Irvine said. “All the park superintendents were thrilled. We were able to accomplish a lot and a lot faster than they would have been able to do if left to their own devices, even though it was a priority for them too.”
Achieving full decarbonization would cost about $15 million, the study said. It also outlined the costs and benefits at other plateaus along the way, though Irvine said the eventual goal is to eliminate fossil fuel usage within the parks.
“That’s complicated certainly with the fact that most of these parks we’re working with on Lake Superior have watercraft and boats, and the electric technology for boats on Lake Superior is just not there yet,” he said. “That’s step two on this process. It’s definitely part of our overall plan for the future.”
Lake Superior’s parks are the furthest along the route to eliminating fossil fuels, but other parks are beginning the same process, Irvine said. He hopes the Lake Superior plan will be able to serve as a model for them as it progresses.
He also sees the project as an educational tool for visitors.
“If you can operate an island park like Isle Royale or a building at a park like Pictured Rocks with heat pumps and solar panels and fully operate those parks effectively, reduce your carbon footprint but also reduce the operating costs of the park, you’ve pulled something off that’s important,” he said.