U might add alternative energy research center

by Nathan Hall

The University might soon be home to a research center devoted solely to studying alternative forms of energy.

The Consortium for Renewable Energy and the Environment – the working title of the University coalition – could advise governmental agencies such as the Department of Commerce on matters of renewable energy policy.

In his State of the Union address last week, President George W. Bush pledged $1.2 billion for renewable energy research during the next 16 years.

Lanny Schmidt, a University chemical engineering professor and consortium member, said Bush’s pledge was a step in the right direction. He also said he will help lobby for the coalition’s inclusion in the legislative plans.

One proposed method of funding the consortium in an economic recession is to commandeer funds already set aside for renewable resources. Traditionally, money collected for the Conservation Improvement Fund and the smaller Renewable Development Fund is the responsibility of the investor-owned utilities involved, which dole out grants at their discretion.

“The (Conservation Improvement Fund) is designed so that electric and gas utilities are obligated to spend a small portion of their gross revenue, usually 2 percent or less, to promote energy efficiency and conservation,” said John Hunter, an alternative energy advocate for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.

Hunter said the Renewable Development Fund resulted from the protracted 1994 hearings regarding additional nuclear waste casks requested by Northern States Power – now known as Xcel Energy.

“In order to fill more storage casks with nuclear waste, they are legally obligated to donate $500,000 a year every year per cask starting in 1999,” he said. “They currently have 17 casks and now want more.”

But growing dissatisfaction by both the Legislature and environmentalists over how Minnesota power plants are run might result in having the programs managed instead by a governmental agency, which could call on the consortium for guidance.

“One role we possibly might play would be to support research on campus focusing on alternative energy that protects our environment,” said Andrew Taton, an assistant University chemistry professor.

“We also might help the faculty apply for other sources of funding like matching grants,” he said.

“Our idea is to look at all the possibilities of improving our energy policy Ö energy security like preventing a repeat of California’s rolling blackouts,” said Kenneth Keller, a professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and former University president.

Keller contributed to a report by the nonprofit group Citizens League that was supported by Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the Senate Commerce and Utilities Committee. The report favors diversifying Minnesota’s long-term energy policy with solar, wind, hydrogen and biomass options.

Feasible and viable

Dr. Marc Von Keitz, director of the University’s Biotechnology Resource Center, separates biomass into four groups: combustion, chemical conversion, biological conversion and biodiesel.

“There are different, varying layers of viability and technological advancement right now,” Keitz said, adding that wind, solar, biomass, biogas, biodiesel and ethanol are already being used.

But he said the wood, grass, bio-hydrogen and gasification energy sources are not ready yet.

“Viability depends on the price of competition,” said Douglas Pratt, a retired University plant biology professor and the former director of the University’s bioenergy coordination office.

Pratt emphasized a “diversification of energy sources” but noted “they all have their own individual environmental drawbacks.”

Lisa Daniels, founder and director of the Wind Industry Project, said Minnesota leads the Midwest in implementing alternative energy sources such as wind.

“We need to pay more and more attention these days to where our energy is coming from,” Daniels said, adding that the University could play an important role by participating in renewable energy projects.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]