Energy center helps homeless

Low-cost innovations, scrap materials help build cheap houses and save on energy.
Friday, April 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:12 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Two years ago, Mark Bernier was homeless, living day to day on the streets of Springfield. Then, he met the Rev. Larry Rice and found his salvation in the form of renewable energy.

Bernier is using scrap materials and other low-cost innovations, such as “papercrete” — a highly efficient insulation made from newspapers and concrete mix, to build his own house.

His home will be at the same place where he learned about these and other methods: Rice’s Mid-America Renewable Energy Center in New Bloomfield in Callaway County.

“I aim to build my house for $3,000,” said Bernier, who is now a trainee at the center.

Until his home is completed and renewable energy features installed, Bernier is using power from the electrical grid. “Every time I flick the light switch now, I think, ‘This is costing me money and polluting the planet,’” he said.

One of Rice’s goals is to help formerly homeless people become self-sufficient through affordable housing projects and teach them how to harness the free energy of the wind, sun and water. During the past two years, Bernier said, the center has helped almost 100 formerly homeless people learn new skills and become more self-sufficient.

Rice opened the energy center in 2002 as a move to help people bypass utility companies — and their pricing structures.

“That winter there was a utility price hike and many people on low income were unable to pay their bills,” Rice said. “So I began to look into renewable energy and how I could help.”

Donations keep center running

Renewable energy resources are financed with donations made to the New Life Evangelistic Center, which is also run by Rice. Materials, such as solar panels, are donated to people like Bernier. Rice considers such expenses an investment that pays back over time.

“It’s like being a homeowner as opposed to a tenant,” he said.

Rice is campaigning for Missouri to create more incentives for people to conserve energy and use renewable energy.

The center serves as a showcase for a range of energy sources. There are demonstration projects on how to make biodiesel fuel from vegetable oil, for example, and how to produce electricity from wind generators, solar panels and hydropower.

“Biodiesel fuel will run in any conventional, unmodified diesel engine,” said Paul Day, a trainee at the center.

And the recipe is simple: used vegetable oil — some of the center’s supply comes from McDonald’s — along with methanol and lye.

“The only noticeable difference from diesel fuel is that the exhaust smells like french fries,” Rice said.

Spreading the word

Bernier and Day recently returned from a three-week mission to India with the New Life Evangelistic Center, where they taught local people to make methane gas for their cooking stoves from chicken and goat manure.

The New Bloomfield center was open to the public Thursday for Earth Day. The next open house is Memorial Day, May 31. The center also serves as a distribution point of renewable energy resources and hosts energy classes and discussion meetings every couple of months.

The upcoming June class deals with photovoltaic design.

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