Renewable energy – a University priority

The proposed National Center for Biofuels Research is a great step forward for conservation.

The Oct. 26 editorial “U should lead in conservation” applauded University efforts with respect to making use of and testing new forms of biomass fuels, but suggested the University can do more to harness cost-effective renewable energy resources and that the University could “make some major breakthroughs in the area of ‘green chemistry,’ which focuses on more efficient and environmentally friendly energy production, if it would only devote more research to this field of study.”

I would suggest that when resources to fund such research are available, our internationally renowned University faculty respond and deliver. The University Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, in just its third year of existence, has provided funding for more than 225 researchers and students working on more than 100 projects at facilities from Duluth to Waseca and Morris to the Twin Cities campuses. These researchers represent seven colleges on the Twin Cities’ campuses, three out-state campuses, and three research and outreach centers in greater Minnesota.

Just this past summer the organization awarded more than $9.3 million to 24 comprehensive research proposals. These newly approved projects span the spectrum from biohydrogen and solar technologies to research on carbon sequestration and livestock waste conversion. Seventy-one graduate students and 20 undergraduates are being supported by these funds and will be advancing the frontiers of science here at the University.

While these projects have a significant focus on basic research, the organization is also supporting some exciting renewable energy demonstration projects. The University Renewable Energy Research and Demonstration Center at Morris is developing several renewable energy facilities including a biomass gasification project and a wind to hydrogen platform. A unique solar powered hydrogen conversion project is also in operation at Rapson Hall.

The the organization Web site www.iree.umn.edu describes a stunning array of research aimed at realizing the organization’s mission of “promoting statewide economic development; sustainable, healthy, and diverse ecosystems; and national energy security through the development of bio-based and other renewable resources and processes.”

University President Bob Bruininks has designated the environment and renewable energy as one of his initiatives, and just last year the University became the fourth educational institution in the country to join the Chicago Climate Exchange, a voluntary, legally binding multisector market for reducing and trading greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed National Center for Biofuels Research – the premier biofuels and bio-based products research, teaching, technology development and transfer program in the nation – will ideally be established at the University. This center will lead the development and commercialization of technologies to support the emerging bio-economy, and IREE will play a central role in its success.

The organization’s goals for the near term include garnering recurring funds to continue and expand its extensive renewable energy research portfolio; making strategic investments in applied research and demonstration efforts; develop a heightened focus on curriculum development (at both the undergraduate and graduate level) and outreach education; an expanded focus on conservation and efficiency; establishing the University as a national center of excellence for full cost accounting and life cycle analysis of renewable energy systems; and building stronger linkages between research on technology development and environmental considerations. These efforts will position the University as the lynchpin for economic development and synergistic partnerships among business and industry, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations interested in creating the next generation of renewable energy technologies.

Richard Hemmingsen is the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment director. Please send comments to [email protected]