U receives money to study renewable energy

by Nathan Hall

The University will receive millions of dollars for renewable energy research from an unusual source – toxic nuclear waste.

Led by the University’s College of Biological Sciences and months of legislative wrangling, the University will receive an initial $11.7 million allocation and roughly $1.7 million annually as part of a compromise between environmentalists and Xcel Energy in exchange for more nuclear storage casks at Prairie Island. The majority of the money will be put toward hydrogen-related projects.

Robert Elde, dean of CBS, said his organization was setting up a process for the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. Elde said the long-term goals for his initiative include building a new facility devoted strictly to renewable energy research.

“The vast majority of our energy comes from coal and it’s bought by the billions of dollars and shipped from places like Wyoming,” Elde said. “Developing alternative fuel sources will also reduce our economic dependence Ö but also reduce the amount of (carbon dioxide) that’s contributing to global warming.”

The coalition will include University technology, agriculture, food, biological and environmental scientists as well as nonprofit and industry experts. The money will be spent on, among other things, biomass research, ecosystem repair, conservation efforts, public policy papers, symposiums and matching grants.

Conservationists said they remained cautiously optimistic about the latest chapter in the nuclear-powered steam plant’s tortured 30-year existence in Welch, Minn. Some antinuclear energy activists, including the Mdewakanton Dakota Sioux, dismissed the gains made in their agenda as too little, too late.

“I wouldn’t call it a compromise because a compromise is when opposing parties find a middle ground,” said Michael Noble, executive director of St. Paul-based nonprofit Minnesotans for an Energy Effi-cient Economy. “There was never a coming together … Xcel used pure political muscle to get what it wanted.”

The bill also requires Xcel to provide 300 megawatts of wind-produced energy, develop a formal plan for how they will meet a 10 percent renewable energy objective by 2010, provide $4.5 million in wind subsidies and $1.5 for biomass.

“We don’t disagree that Xcel has a role to play in supporting renewable energy research,” said Laura McCarten, Xcel’s community service director. “On a balanced view, we feel it’s a good compromise Ö because the plants are important to providing our customers with affordably priced energy.”

Those who testified against raising the storage cap at the Capitol held a decidedly cloudier view of the proceedings.

“The Legislature had an opportunity to protect us from a long-term extension of these aging nuclear reactors, but now this will be very difficult to prevent,” said Clyde Hanson, the local Sierra Club’s conservation chairman in a prepared statement. “The older they get, the higher the risk of permanent radiation pollution of a large part of the Midwest.”

Bill Grant, associate executive director of the local chapter of the nonprofit Izaac Walton League, said he was not satisfied with the deal because “it doesn’t technically mandate that the hydrogen will be acquired from renewable resources until 2010.”

Other environmentalists criticized the bill as overtly pro-industry.

The original House bill designated garbage incinerators, tire burning and coal as “renewable energy,” but the Senate later removed this language.

The University money is derived from the Renewable Development Fund. Under the previous system developed in 1999, Xcel paid $500,000 annually per cask toward renewable energy research projects. Under the new agreement, Xcel pays a flat $16 million annually.

“I wish people would do the math because we actually lost a lot of money this way,” said Diana McKeown, energy program director for local nonprofit Clean Water Action. “Millions of dollars were lost Ö and that comes out of the ratepayer’s pockets, not the shareholders’.”

On June 5, a petition to recall Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, for conflict of interest was dismissed by Minnesota Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz. Allegations arose beginning in May after Murphy, an Xcel fuel technician, voiced support of expanding Prairie Island waste storage.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nathan Hall covers University research and technology and welcomes comments at [email protected]