A Storm Lake native is one of five Iowans bicycling their way to a better understanding of ways to use renewable energy.
Gail Barels, who grew up in Storm Lake and is a graduate of Buena Vista University, is part of the Green Bike Team, which is touring four countries in Northern Europe to view alternative energy sites and interview some of the world's top experts in clean energy alternatives. The conservation teacher is the only female rider making the journey. The group, led by former state legislator David Osterberg of Mount Vernon, ends the three-week trip next week in Denmark.
"Global climate change is real," said Osterberg, who teaches about global warming at the University of Iowa. He has promoted the trip with the inclusion of a solar bike - a bicycle that has a small electric motor and a battery charged by a solar panel.
Osterberg and Barels, a Linn County conservation educator, and their colleagues are hoping to show Iowans that energy policy can be changed to be better for the environment, while making money for farmers and boosting local economies. At the same time, they want to see how an energy policy that combats global warming affects the daily lives of residents.
In the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, they already have found many examples of "green" energy strategies, while attracting the attention of Europeans. They started the tour in Amsterdam on June 16, and the next day bicycled to Apeldoorn, about 50 miles southeast.
"To our surprise, TV cameras and a small pack of journalists were waiting for us as we turned into the Market square where the municipal building sits," Osterberg said.
"The city has such ambitious goals for sustainable energy development," he said. "Apeldoorn's goal is to achieve 10 percent sustainable energy use by 2008 and then move to 100 percent by 2020 through the use of green electricity, green gas and green heat from biomass, sun power and other innovations."
Osterberg is hoping Iowans take note of those kinds of numbers. At Kiel, Germany, the riders spoke with officials who could tell them about energy development in their state, Schleswig Holstein. The state is comparable to Iowa, with a landscape of fields of corn, small grain and oil crops, and a population of 2.7 million.
"The difference between Iowa and the state of Schleswig Holstein is the fact that they are getting 18 percent of their electricity from wind power and Iowa is getting only 2 percent," Osterberg said. "The other difference is they have plans to go to 50 percent, while Iowa has no plans at all."
The group also includes State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City; Jim Cooper, who leads the Prairie Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Agency in Ames; and Ed Woolsey, an alternative energy entrepreneur and consultant.
They are regularly sending back stories and photos for their website, www.greenbike.org, for the public to view. Among the highlights they have seen:
- A straw-burning plant at Sakskobing, Denmark, where electricity is produced in an efficient "district heating" operation that reduces waste heat. The heat produced is used for both heating and hot-water needs of residents of two towns.
"District heating is common in northern Europe and is one of the reasons the countries here are more energy efficient than the United States. The Sakskobing power plant is uncommon because in addition to its efficiency benefits, it uses straw for its fuel," Osterberg said.
Farm wagons and trucks enter a large metal building where robotic cranes unload the wheat and grass straw bales. The same cranes feed the straw into the power plant.
- A building-supply outlet that features environmentally friendly building materials, including wallpaper, paints and wood products that are marketed to consumers.
"The store employees receive extra training to help consumers understand the value of those products," Osterberg said. "We also visited the roof where there is a massive set of photovoltaic panels to electrify the store and a green roof."
Those features make the building ecologically friendly. Green roofs are earthen-covered roofs where short-rooted plants are growing in two feet of soil on top of a rubber roof liner. The rain that hits the roof is absorbed by the soil and the plants. Excess water is drained off of the roof to provide water for toilets in the building.
- Much use of wind generators - similar to those that are finding growing use in Buena Vista County.
"We passed many wind generators along the route," Osterberg said. "Denmark, just like the German province of Schleswig-Holstein, gets more than 15 percent of its electricity from the wind. Denmark also gets a growing share of its electricity from hay-burning plants such as the one at Sakskobing. Energy policy in this country is integrated with agricultural policy and consequently farmers make money while the atmosphere receives less greenhouse gas."
When she isn't trekking across Europe on a bike, Barels is working for the Linn County Conservation Department, working with children at the Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Center near Cedar Rapids. The Storm Lake native is the former president of the Iowa Association of Naturalists and a former member of the Iowa Environmental Council executive committee.