The wind sweeps across the plains. Construction materials are hauled to landfills to decompose, rather than converted to energy. Organic farmers look at the sun, hoping for ways to stretch the Minnesota growing season. And restaurant cooking oils spiral down the drain, instead of into gas tanks.
It’s time for Minnesota to open the floodgates on these resources.
With lawmakers at both the state and federal levels looking for ways to stimulate an economy that hangs on the edge of recession, the time is ripe to use the “green economy” for economic-development plans. It doesn’t take massive tax breaks for big industries. Rather, it takes seed money to launch entrepreneurs who have good ideas for sustainable business development but don’t have the capacity to withstand all the risks.
“It is frustrating to see the public response,” complains Caroline van Schaik of the Land Stewardship Project office in Lewiston. “It seems we also go after the big showy projects and we don’t help the small entrepreneur who has an idea that can be replicated by normal business people.”
Van Schaik is among a growing number of Minnesotans who see aiding entrepreneurs to launch new projects and environmentally friendly businesses will have lasting, positive impacts on the state’s economy and quality of life.
A chance to refocus with a green hue
Minnesota 2020 previously argued that shifting the emphasis from chasing smokestacks to helping Minnesota entrepreneurs start and expand businesses would better serve Minnesota’s long-term interests. The Legislature is now looking at ways to implement all or parts of the Governor’s Strategic Entrepreneurial Economic Development (SEED) plan focusing primarily on rural Minnesota. This offers an opportunity to cast the state’s refocused development efforts with a distinctly green hue.
The following are a few areas meriting more research and development efforts that would serve Minnesota long into the future:
Wind: Minnesota is a pioneer in harnessing wind power, but we are still in the infancy of a meaningful shift to renewable, clean electric generating industry.
Dan Juhl of Woodstock, in southwestern Minnesota, is the developer of wind generation systems that are now in wide and growing use around Minnesota. While some of his Danmar & Associates Inc.-developed projects involve large wind farms along Buffalo Ridge, technology is available and feasible for small wind power systems useful for homeowners and small businesses, he said.
Check out his website to explore information from this renewable energy pioneer, and especially the information on small-scale power systems.
Seeking a longer growing season
Greenhouse farming: Organic farmers in southeastern Minnesota are exploring ways to build greenhouse complexes to use sunlight and renewable fuels to extend Minnesota’s growing season. The technology is available, said Michael Rivard, an economic-development consultant in Minneapolis; some locally developed to use Minnesota wood byproducts and some — such as the greenhouse designs themselves — primarily adapted from European experience.
Regardless, the biggest need of development might be systems for cooperatively owning and operating greenhouse and energy complexes, Rivard said. And that, given Minnesota’s long and diverse experience with cooperative business forms, should not be an insurmountable problem.
Benefits clearly point to quality-of-life factors given prospects for more locally produced foods for more months of the year. And, Rivard adds, it would reduce the amount of miles and energy consumed in moving foods from around the world to our Minnesota dining tables.
Fats and oils as fuel: Again, Minnesota has been something of a national leader in converting restaurant and institutional grease and oils into biodiesel fuels. FUMPA, short for Farmers Union Marketing and Processing Association at Redwood Falls, is a leading rendering works that gathers animals and bio waste products statewide for processing into useful byproducts. It now has a biofuels subsidiary that makes fuels from restaurant and institutional greases.
The technology is there, and always has been, said LSP’s Van Schaik. For instance, one of her group’s members lives at Fountain City, Wis., across the Mississippi River and about one large order of fries north of Winona. There, Joe Libera converts auto engines to burning vegetable oils picked up at river town restaurants at his Greasy Motors (“The Real GM”) garage.
Diesel and heavy equipment students and faculty at Hibbing Community College are also making biofuels from cooking oils, processing oils gleaned from the college’s culinary arts program.
Exploring expanded reuse of materials
Cleaning up wisely: Probably one of the least explored, but potentially huge green industries rests with recycling construction project materials and industrials wastes that now are simply dumped in landfills, insist Rivard and his acquaintances among economic development consultants.
Metals are now expensive enough that most metals salvaged from remodeling and expansion projects are recycled, he said. But some concrete products could be used in creating eco-friendly stoves, ovens and similar uses; and wood and biomaterials can be fuel sources for small-scale projects, such as the greenhouses cited above.
Again, systems to use these materials may be lagging behind technology, Rivard said.
Systems only get developed when there is a will to do so. That will can be induced, or at least nudged, by public policy that encourages and supports development and research. Minnesota’s economic development future has arrived, and it’s green.
Lee Egerstrom is a fellow at Minnesota 2020, a think tank based in St. Paul.
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