A bill set to go before a Minnesota Senate committee Thursday will ultimately decide if the University of Minnesota’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment will continue to receive the funding it uses to support research.
IREE currently receives $5 million a year from the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund and Conservation Improvement Program — or RDF — but this funding is set to end in June.
The proposed legislation, introduced by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, would direct funding from the RDF to projects solely relating to renewable electricity.
The money in the fund comes from Xcel Energy because it operates nuclear power plants in the state.
“What’s happened is this fund has been used to fund other projects that don’t particularly relate to electric generation,” said Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, one of the co-authors of the bill.
He said legislators are concerned that this money will be directed toward projects outside the scope of the fund, meaning not related to renewable electricity.
They are looking to “get back to what this money is designed to do,” Howe said.
Established in 2003, IREE gives startup grants to research projects in a variety of areas including bioenergy, bioproducts, conservation and energy efficiency. Those funds are often matched or exceeded by other agencies so they can continue doing their work.
Matching grants is a key part of IREE’s impact on energy research, said University professor Larry Wackett. He credits leveraging IREE’s funds to secure additional funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for his work on creating fuel from bio-hydrocarbons.
“If there weren’t programs like IREE, then we wouldn’t bring this [money] into the state,” Wackett said. “Having this kind of flexible funding in a hot field, like energy research, helps leverage.”
Richard Hemmingsen, managing director for IREE, said the bulk of the research done through the initiative was launched by funding from the Xcel Energy fund and losing it would be detrimental to the program.
In its nine-year history, IREE-funded projects have produced numerous publications, breakthroughs and patents in the field of renewable energy research, according to its website.
One of these projects is research regarding a type of geothermal power plant that harnesses the Earth’s natural heat and carbon dioxide, significantly reducing the ecological footprint of the plant.
The project, helmed by University professor Martin Saar, is currently patent pending. Saar said without funding from IREE, this project might have never received sufficient outside funds to get started.
“It’s all triggered by the IREE grant.” said Saar. “It kind of shows how these IREE dollars get multiplied and how the investment leads to much, much larger funding for renewable energy and environment projects.”
Sen. Mary Jo McGuire, DFL-Falcon Heights, a member of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee that will hear the bill Thursday, said she has received significant feedback from concerned people and organizations regarding the proposed legislation.
“If we don’t think ahead, if we don’t start really figuring out how we can get more sustainable clean energy, our environment is truly in greater danger,” said McGuire, who does not support the bill.
“I am a huge supporter of this kind of research and to have an entity such as IREE be focused on that, I think we’re lucky that we are able to have that.”