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Rush hour in Stelle, Illinois.

A fascinating story from the Chicago News Cooperative today looks at the tiny town of Stelle, Illinois, and its colorful past.

Originally founded in the early 1970s by doomsday cult leader Richard Kieninger, Stelle was envisioned as a self-sustaining outpost that would survive the impending apocalypse.

Kieninger predicted Stelle would grow into a city of 250,000 people. As history would have it, it was only off by about 249,900. Kieninger moved on, but what remains is a fairly run-of-the-mill small town that is also a national model for energy self-sufficiency.

According to the town’s website, 20 of the 44 homes have some form of solar power, either PV or passive. The town’s phone cooperative is solar powered, and a wind turbine helps pump the town’s water. Stelle was also home to the state’s first straw-bale home, a low-cost and highly energy efficient construction technique.

Having a town with Stelle’s history as a poster child for renewable power probably doesn’t do much to shake the common preconception that sustainable energy is for dirty, smelly hippies. But looking at photos on the town’s website, you’d be hard-pressed to point out the differences between Stelle and any other small town in the Midwest (OK, so there is a “fire ceremony” and a handful of people look like they’d be more at home in Berkeley, but still).

For the curious, the Center for Sustainable Community, based in Stelle, offers tours of the town for visitors.

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Ken Paulman

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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