University scientist owns ‘green’ house

by Alex Robinson

In 2003, University scientist Rich Huelskamp was laid off from his job at the state energy office, and now he refuses to pay heating bills. His refusal, however, is not out of spite.

Just south of Red Wing, Minn., Huelskamp owns a wind- and solar-powered house that sits on the edge of an eight-acre, bluff-top lot.

For Huelskamp and his wife, Ellen Hutchinson, the project started in 2001 when they wanted to build a more sustainable house. Now, six years later, the house is almost finished with only the metal shingles still needing to be attached.

The pair built about 90 percent of the 3,600-square-foot house themselves.

The house has its own windmill and solar electric array, which charge batteries that provide electricity. The solar array creates about 1.3 kilowatts of energy and the windmill creates about one kilowatt of energy – the equivalent of the energy stored in approximately eight car batteries.

To warm the house, Huelskamp relies on a wood boiler in an adjacent workshop garage and a row of south-facing windows.

The floor of the house is cement and traps heat, so when sunlight shines through the windows and soaks into the floor the house stays warm for hours.

Huelskamp also has an E-85 burning generator for backup. He said he has to run the generator for about half an hour each day on average.

“Philosophically, our goal is to avoid combustion,” Huelskamp said.

With the recent stretch of mild winters, he said heating the house has not been a major production.

The house is a Geodesic dome, which means it looks like a giant golf ball cut in half and hollowed out. The inside of the dome traps heat and has a spider-web-based design.

Although the design is efficient, Huelskamp said not many people are crazy about its aesthetics.

“About 4 percent of the public enjoys its architecture,” he said.

Hutchinson said the house far exceeded her expectations. By working on the house, Hutchinson said she learned a lot about energy and sustainability.

“I feel like I’m way ahead of the curve now,” Hutchinson said. “I couldn’t have said that 10 years ago.”

Even though the house doesn’t create any utility fees, Huelskamp said that the switch to renewable energy wasn’t cheap.

The equipment used to heat and power the house had a price tag of about $30,000, Huelskamp said.

He said that he expects the solar equipment will have a 25- year payback and the windmill equipment will have a 15-year payback.

“It’s not an economical decision,” Huelskamp said. “It’s a philosophical decision.”

Huelskamp said a major reason why he built the house was to increase education about renewable energy sources.

“Here’s our chance to figure it out and to let people know how well it works or if it doesn’t work,” he said.

Ralph Jacobson, University alumnus and CEO of Innovative Power Systems, helped Huelskamp with his solar electric array and windmill.

Jacobson said that while most people are still not ready to take the financial blow that renewable energy delivers, some people are starting to convert.

“The economic payoff is not now, but it comes over time,” Jacobsen said. “As the price of fossil fuels goes up the payoff will come faster and faster.”