During a tour of Niagara Cave near Harmony, Minn., the knowledgeable tour guides take a moment to turn off the lights to have visitors experience the fact that it is so dark you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face.
While experiencing this strange sensation, the last thing you are wondering about is where the energy for the lights comes from — you just want the lights back on!
Learning that the lights way down deep in the cave are powered from the sun which is approximately 93 million miles away is really quite impressive.
Beginning on August 28, 2015, Niagara Cave became the first commercially run cave in the world where the energy consumption is 100% offset by solar energy.
Mark Bishop, who owns and runs Niagara Cave with his family, had been considering the advantages of solar power for personal use for over 30 years. “I seriously began looking at alternative energy sources for the cave about 10 to 12 years ago,” states Bishop.
While considering geothermal, wind and solar energy Bishop did research on all three types. “After evaluating the cost benefit and practicality of the three options, solar seemed the most reasonable direction to go,” he says.
After making the decision to go with solar energy, the next decision to be made was when to implement the idea.
“As part of my business plan for the cave I try to make one major improvement every year, so in the fall of 2014 I decided that 2015 was the year that we would commit to developing a plan to incorporate solar energy into the business,” notes Bishop.
During the winter of 2014-15, Bishop did research on solar energy contractors in the area. He also contacted their electric company at the time, Tri-County Electric, to educate himself even further on the process.
Bishop decided to have Solar Connections based in Rochester, Minn., complete the work on the project.
As the property surrounding the cave has a lot of trees and not a lot of extra space, Bishop decided to have the solar panels installed on a small parcel of land they own north of Harmony, because there is more wide open space that is unobstructed by trees in that location, allowing for maximum benefit of sun exposure for the solar panels.
The project of installing the solar panels and getting connected to their new solar energy source began in the early spring of 2015. “Solar Connections took over and made it happen,” states Bishop.
“The anticipated completion date was mid-July. There were a couple of minor delays due to weather, waiting for parts and inspections,” explains Bishop, but the project was complete and Niagara Cave was connected to solar energy on August 28.
It is a 37.9 kW PV system projected to produce at least 45,000/kWh/year. “It was designed to produce enough energy to offset all the energy usage on the property at Niagara Cave,” states Bishop, but it has actually done even better.
“So far, the system has outperformed its projections by producing over 49,000 kWh/year average in its first three years,” comments Bishop.
“The system produces slightly more energy than is consumed at the cave facility. The overage is sold back to the current electrical supplier, MiEnergy,” Bishop explains.
“We are very happy with the system. It has required zero maintenance to date and continues to outperform it’s design,” he says.
Going solar at Niagara Cave also set a precedent for other commercially operated caves in the country and the world who have followed suit.
“When the project was completed we (Solar Connections and those at Niagara Cave) did some research and as far as we can tell, we were the first commercial cave business to utilize solar energy for 100% of its energy consumption and light up the underground,” states Bishop.
“We reported the success of our project to members of the National Caves Association and the International Show Caves Association, of which we are members. Since then several caves, both nationally and internationally, have incorporated solar within their facilities,” explains Bishop.
Take an afternoon this summer and visit Niagara Cave and when you find yourself in the dark, just for those few seconds, remember that the lights will come back on — thanks to the sun up above.
Be sure to take time to enjoy some miniature golf, gemstone and fossil mining, or even enjoy a picnic in the shelter and let the kids play in the playground area. Niagara Cave also has an impressive gift shop with a wide array of very interesting items and souvenirs including geodes, cephalopods, gastropods, trilobites, books, salt lamps, apparel, stones from all over the world and much more.
Fillmore County is very fortunate to have one of the most renowned caves in the United States so close for area residents and tourists to visit.
Niagara Cave opens for the season weekends starting the first weekend in April and seven days a week beginning in May.
Niagara Cave is located at 29842 County 30, Harmony. For more information phone (507) 886-6606 or (800) 837-6606. Additional information can be found online at niagaracave.org.