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Connected to Power!

11/22/22 – After more than 66 years of generating our own power, last week the electrical (and fiber) grid finally made its way to Sawbill. This may come as a bit of a surprise. People often assumed that we have always been connected to power because of our sizable campus and modern amenities, but the reality is we have maintained our own mini power plant. It has grown and morphed over the years, utilizing a combination of solar, wind, propane and diesel generation.

It is truly remarkable what Frank and Mary Alice conceived of so many years ago, and how Bill and Cindy continued to expand and grow in spite of this very large hurdle. Clare and I have been here for seven years now, and I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t had an electricity issue forefront in my mind.

The closest connection to the grid is 9.5 miles from Sawbill at an ARMER tower on the Grade. The power and fiber cables were trenched in this fall as a part of a large federal fiber grant (RDOF) awarded to our local electric/fiber utility, Arrowhead Cooperative. It is a 10 year, $20 million grant that was awarded in 2021 and this was the first project completed. (Over the next decade they will be connecting other parts of Cook County currently not on the grid) We have been advocating for a project like this for years, so we are thrilled that it has finally come to fruition.

People have been asking if we are sad to lose our off-grid status. It’s true, there is some romanticism about being off the grid, and we have learned a lot of tangential skills from it, but with a system of our size was more work and worry than romance. There’s a lot going on here at Sawbill, and energy issues have demanded a lot of time on our schedules (and space in our heads). In the long run it will also make us much “greener”, too. While we do have a decent solar capacity, it was always limited by the amount of battery storage we could reasonably maintain. So in practice, the solar capacity was never enough to power our operation and we have relied heavily on propane and diesel generators. Now, we can invest in more solar capacity and just sell it back onto the grid and not worry about the storage aspect. The grid is also slowly moving away from carbon, so that will help us, too. We were never going to be carbon free in our off-grid system. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn how to troubleshoot a diesel engine and coax it back to life at 3am when it’s 30 below, but it’s not an experience I’ll miss.

Speaking of generators, the cool thing is we have a bunch of infrastructure in place already that we can now shift to being backups to the grid. So now when there is a power outage, we’ll have a robust backup system, so theoretically we’ll never be without power now!

I’m sure we’ll continue to realize many benefits to our new access to power, but the first obvious one is just how quiet it is. Especially this time of year with snow on the ground and no visitors, the absence of the generator droning in the background is pretty special, and I think the way we would all want to experience the deep north woods.

– Dan

Sawbill’s new “power plant”. Transformer in the foreground with the new service panels built in fall 2022.
Using a “plow cat” contractors use a tandem machine configuration to simultaneously cut a trench and lay power and fiber. The work began on the Sawbill side and worked back to the source on the grade, 9.5 miles away.
Plow cat navigating the canoe yard
Concrete was poured over the cable in spots where rocks prevented it from being layed 3 ft deep.
Close up of high voltage cable. A relatively small wire encased in a multi layer rubber housing inside of a hard plastic conduit.
Kit and Sig look on while excavators clear the spot for the new transformer.
Snow covered trench. A bit of stress to get this project done in the late fall, but that’s nothing new for us!
Arrowhead Cooperative energizing our service on November 15, 2022.
Our trusty diesel generators will now be in standby mode, ready for an emergency. Retired from their prime power duties.