Dodge Nature Center working to improve energy usage

Dodge Nature Center’s mission statement says its goal is “providing exceptional experiences in nature through environmental education,” and the West St. Paul-based nonprofit is working to make sure it lives up to that ideal.

With that in mind, the organization recently began work on improving its energy usage and reducing its operating costs.


‘Walk the walk’

Buildings and grounds director Sean Gokey said the center as a whole wanted to be more efficient and “walk the walk” when it comes to best practices around things like recycling, composting and energy consumption.

“Early on when I was here, we talked about how we could do something more to get more efficient,” he said, adding that improving the center’s energy usage began in earnest last December when he reached out to Xcel Energy.

From there he found EnerChange, a nonprofit that works with Xcel to help other nonprofits audit their energy use toward becoming more efficient.

Formed 10 years ago, EnerChange’s mission, according to Steve Seidl, its executive director, is to transform information into action. EnerChange not only informs, educates and tells its clients about all of their options, but also helps them implement the measures.

“We intend to take the hassle out of the process for our nonprofit clients, many of whom are not particularly steeped in energy expertise,” Seidl said.

Karen Malkowski, a project manager from EnerChange, said Dodge has so many buildings and different Xcel accounts, that the first step was to straighten them out. After that, she talked with Gokey about which buildings were his pririoties. Due to the large number of facilities, Gokey said the center wanted to focus on three: the main building, the Farm Education Building and the preschool.

Malkowski said the pair walked the buildings to take a look at what they were used for, keeping in mind their operating hours, the equipment in them and how projects would fit into the scope of work Dodge could do this year and next.


Ways to improve

Gokey said at the end of the audit, Dodge was given information on a number of ways to improve its energy usage. He was also given information on how much could be saved by doing things like putting in LED lights, something he already wanted to do.

“It’s kind of neat to see how much you actually save and gain back,” he said.

Utility companies also offer rebates to offset the cost of making facilities more energy efficient, Seidl said, as incentives for clients to make the changes.

The audit provided no big surprises, though it was educational, Gokey said — it did show that the center’s solar panels aren’t working.

Work started this winter on replacing lights with LEDs in the Farm Education Building. All of the center’s outdoor lighting has been updated as well. The thermostats for the offices and Farm Education Building have been replaced, since Malkowski said the thermostats in the event space weren’t programmable, which was an easy fix.

Gokey said the center is planning other work not related to the audit, including putting in for grants to install more solar panels on the Farm Education Building. The center already received a private donation for the purchase of a solar-powered mower.

Gokey said Dodge Nature Center is a teaching facility so naturalists know about the projects and can tell visiting children about the work done. The old solar panels, which will be repaired, have been used for teaching in the past and the update will continue that work.

“We can teach from that,” Gokey said. “It kind of works into our mission ... We’re walking the walk and we actually talk and teach from what we’re doing out here.”


–Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or


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