Energy efficiency conference held at U

Major Minnesota businesses discussed energy-saving policies and products.

Angela Gray

In an era of oil addiction and dependency, a new movement is exploring petroleum alternatives and opportunities to optimize motor vehicle efficiency.

On Thursday, the dean of the College of Biological Sciences, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Newell Weed, chairman of the National Initiative by Consumers of Energy, sponsored a conference at the Cargill Building on the St. Paul campus to discuss energy efficiency.

With a mission to bind major consumers of energy, representatives from major Minnesota corporations, such as Land O’ Lakes and General Mills were invited to discuss energy policies, energy purchases and a push for the market to provide energy-efficient products.

Newell said Minnesota is a great spot for the growth of new energy innovations.

“Earl Bakken of Minnesota gave birth to heart pacemakers and created Medtronic; men from Duluth glued gravel on paper to make sandpaper and shingles and 3M was created,” he said. “Things can really start here.”

Newell said he hoped to launch a Minnesota chapter of the National Initiative by Consumers of Energy to focus on transportation.

“If we can gather consumers and businesses, we can put together our buying power in terms of motor efficiency.”

He said, “Everyone loves to do good things for their country, but the bottom line is people like to save money.”

Exploring options

Bill Roberts, director of University Fleet Services, said the University has 850 vehicles.

He said the University has experimented with the Toyota Prius and ethanol fuels (E85) and adopted the Zipcar car sharing program to reduce the number of vehicles on campus.

“After three weeks of using the Zipcars, things look promising,” he said.

The University also has looked into hybrid buses, Roberts said, but it is not cost-effective to purchase a hybrid bus that costs $200,000 more than a regular bus.

Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, said the University’s leadership is committed to pushing the agenda for renewable energy.

“Renewable energy and vehicle efficiency is expected to be a great research opportunity for students,” he said. “It’s proposed that 75 Ph.D. theses will be written on renewable energy and those 75 people also will be experts entering the work force.

“We’re one of the largest energy users in the state and we are definitely willing to be a guinea pig for new renewable energy alternatives,” Elde said.

Big business, big fleets

Henry Paetzel of General Mills said corporations look at the resale value, operations and fuel costs when making vehicle purchases.

He said with a fleet of 1,500 vehicles, the company has used six Toyota Prius models in a test program.

Paetzel said the drawbacks of using the Prius include paying $8,000 more (than the standard Chevrolet Impala cars the company uses) and not seeing the long-term cost benefits because they do not keep the vehicles for long.

He said that despite having 200 gas stations in Minnesota that offer energy-efficient fuel, locating them has been a problem.

“We would like to purchase more efficient cars and have our employees use them, but it’s just not doable,” he said. “We can’t send salesmen to fuel-efficient gas stations they can’t find.”

Paetzel said it is difficult to influence their employees’ driving preferences.

Vic Bowman of Land O’ Lakes said the corporation uses 1,100 to 1,200 cars and trucks for sales and delivery to mostly rural towns.

“Farm kids are accustomed to driving trucks,” he said. “I don’t think they are going to want to drive a hybrid into a cattle yard.

“We hope to get more energy-efficient cars in the end, but it’s a difficult thing to just jump into.”

He said the biggest obstacle is getting employees to want to drive the energy-efficient vehicles.

Looking ahead

Mary Morse, representative for Hourcar, a nonprofit car-sharing organization that uses hybrid vehicles, said the organization’s mission is to reduce greenhouse gases.

Morse said the Hourcar program is similar to Zipcar, and that the organization is experimenting with 10 of the vehicles in Minneapolis and is hoping to expand.

The five-passenger midsize sedan gets 47 miles to the gallon and functions best for short trips in the city.

“In America, car sharing has gained popularity,” she said.

She said car sharing is not limited to the urban population.

“People from Edina and Richfield use the transit (system) to get to work, and then end up using the Hourcars for meetings and events around the city.”

She said the organization would like to reach out to more downtown businesses, including those in St. Paul.

“The trick is a brain thing; it’s all about getting people to realize that they use their cars to get to and from work and then it sits in a garage.”

Morse said that while cars are not in use, people still pay fixed costs. “It adds up “­ car sharing can save people $4,000 to $5,000 each year,” she said.

Bill Blazer, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said right now they need to collect more input on consumer purchasing power and buying practices before moving forward.

Newell encouraged conference attendees to collect information through surveys and questionnaires and garner support for a Minnesota NICE chapter.

“We have only scratched the surface,” he said.

“My dream is that one day institutions and corporations will be placing order forms for thousands of energy-efficient cars and have manufacturers compete for their business,” he said. “Hopefully it will happen in my lifetime.”