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A wise investment in renewable-energy innovation: Let’s not throw it away

If you could get $3 back for every dollar you invested, would you throw the opportunity away? How about if the deal included added benefits like creating high-tech jobs, new start-up companies, technological breakthroughs, education for tomorrow’s scientists and leaders, and improved energy security in your home state? And if it meant that Minnesota could be a producer of new renewable energy technologies, rather than a consumer of technologies developed in China or Europe? 

The answer seems obvious to us. That’s why we at the IREE are opposing the current version of legislative proposal SF2181, which is poised to strip our state of a premier and highly successful program that brings innovative renewable energy technologies to life and provides tremendous returns on investment for both economic and intellectual capital.

In 2003, a visionary Minnesota Legislature assigned a portion of the Renewable Energy Development Fund (RDF) to support research and development at the University of Minnesota. In return, the university – through its Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) at the Institute on the Environment – has not only built a powerful community of researchers and entrepreneurs who are shaping the future of renewable energy in Minnesota, but also provided a remarkable return on investment for RDF funds by:

  • directly creating more than 300 high-tech jobs in Minnesota
  • mobilizing a community of nearly 600 researchers, leading to scores of breakthrough discoveries, publications and patents
  • bringing nearly $70 million in outside research and development funds to our state
  • helping build more than 190 business and industry partnerships in renewable energy
  • supporting more than 100 graduate students who have earned advanced degrees related to renewable energy and are now sharing their expertise with the world.

All of this is now at risk. The version of SF 2181 now before the Senate Finance Committee would end direct RDF support for University renewable energy research and redirect all RDF funding to Xcel Energy, where it would be focused exclusively on renewable electricity – ignoring transportation fuels, other critical renewable energy resources, and energy conservation and efficiency technologies.

We agree that renewable electricity is important, and we acknowledge that Xcel can manage renewable energy construction projects very well. However, a narrow focus on electricity alone is not sufficient to best serve Minnesota’s long-term needs. A broader renewable energy R&D portfolio is most prudent, and we firmly believe that a balanced portfolio of investments is absolutely critical – balanced across the range of renewable energy sources and applications, balanced between large corporations and public institutions, and balanced across the continuum of research and development to commercialization.

For nearly a decade, the University of Minnesota has been bringing renewable energy innovation and its accompanying economic benefits to our state by doing what we know how to do best – conduct world-class research through a program that is both efficient and highly productive. Rather than cut off the pipeline of technological advancement and economic activity, let’s modify SF2181 to continue funding new energy R&D through IREE – so we can continue to reap the many returns from the 2003 Legislature’s wise investment in renewable energy research and development at the University of Minnesota.

Richard Hemmingsen is managing director of the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment at the University of Minnesota. The views presented are his and do not represent those of the University of Minnesota.

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Comments (6)

Funding renewable energy

Although there are few successful large scale renewable energy programs in Minnesota or elsewhere, Mr. Hemmingson is right on about the future. The place to put our money is in the kind of research being done at the U of MN IREE. The places not to put it include large wind farms like the $2 billion Cape Wind project off Cape Cod; or the $2 billion Ivanpah solar boondoggle in Nevada. Neither will produce one tenth of the power we get from Prairie Island nuclear in summer when demand peaks.
The people of Goodhue county, MN are breathing sighs of relief over the demise of the proposed noisy eagle killing wind farm there.
Then there is $500 million lost at a non-competitive solar plant, or the same sum proposed for cellulose and algae jet biofuel factories when that process doesn't work.
Rather we need research like the U of MN program in nanotubes for higher efficiency solar panels.

I disagree with Mr. Westgard on one thing - nuclear power

The world is learning that nuclear power cannot be relied upon to be safe. Japan's earthquake and tsunami almost caused a meltdown that could have destroyed a huge area and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

But that's not all. France gets most of its energy from nuclear plants and re-processes spent fuel so it can be used again. It doesn't do that work, or at least all of it, in France, however. Trucks and trains carry spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing. The writer of an article I read a few years ago noted that at least one those plants (in Siberia?) stored the fuel waiting to be treated in above-ground containers. Safe? The writer thought not. (Google "Is French nuclear power production safe?" or some such.)

The U.S. has as yet found no safe place to store the spent fuel accumulating at Prairie Island and other plants around the country. The plant that starred in the movie The China Syndrome still sits upon a huge fault in the earth that perhaps awaits The Big One.

We shouldn't give up on solar or wind or any other possibility. Perhaps instead of giant arrays of solar panels, though, each home and building should have its own array on its roof, thus dispensing with the grid. Also, speaking of research, a few years ago scientists at Columbia U. were working to develop a solar panel that stored energy in the same way a plant does.

Renewable Funding

I beg to differ with Rolf on his estimate of the viability of jet biofuel. Honeywell, Int. has successfully demonstrated these fuels in all major jet aircraft, both military and civilian. Each month brings another record broken in these efforts. UMN IREE has recently met and explored joint partnerships with them in processes related to algae fuels. They certainly believe in it's viability, and it's the cost reduction through large-scale demonstration that needs to be accomplished. Industry has benchmarks and milestones as a condition of funding federal projects that result in success.

IREE should be the clearinghouse and central hub to manage this sort of effort, and bring together all of the stakeholders in concert. There is nobody else to merge the cooperative efforts of federal, state, business and industry, labor, educational research, agriculture, and public works to accomplish this. This should be their role and mandate, not plowing all of that public trust and taxpayer investment under. That's just foolish. Go for the victory, that's leadership.

Bernice confusion

You are confused, Bernice. Nuclear is a complicated subject. Best to ask questions.
The reprocessing is ALL done in France at La Hague. France reprocesses spent fuel for other countries. It something we should be doing.
France does send a small amount of UF 6 to a Russian enrichment plant at Seversk for enrichment, not reprocessing. There is no danger from these shipments.
There are two options as we phase out of coal - natural gas and nuclear. NG doesn't have mercury, sulfur, etc, but it does produce CO2. Nuclear only emits water vapor. And the spent fuel nuclear storage problem can be managed, but that is a separate lecture.
Regards, Rolf

France and nuclear

France is the largest exporter of electric power in the world because of the safe economical power from its 58 nuclear reactors. Germany's unwise decision to phase out nuclear is making it more and more dependent on imports of power from France and from Germany's coal plants. that's not a pretty picture for them.

Jet biofuel

Jet biofuel works in military aircraft. But it costs several times JP8, and we don't know how to produce it from cellulose or algae in any quantity. So the $500 million being coughed up for production plants will follow the Solyndra $500 million down the drain.