University research makes case for $5M grant

An initiative started in 2003 to fund energy research at the U.

Kevin Burbach

The money that the University of Minnesota doles out each year for renewable energy research will come into question at the beginning of the new year.

University professors, researchers and graduate students gathered at the E3 conference in the McNamara Alumni Center  Monday to demonstrate the instituteâÄôs research and why that funding matters.

The state Legislature requires that Xcel Energy give about $5 million annually to the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment âÄî a granting organization within the UniversityâÄôs Institute on the Environment.

John Sheehan, the director of IREE, said the funding will be up for reconsideration in the Legislature in 2012. A Republican lawmaker said some colleagues would like to see some of the money cut.

âÄúWe would very much like to see [funding] continue,âÄù Sheehan said.

The funding agreement started in the 1990s in exchange for XcelâÄôs storage of nuclear waste at its Prairie Island power plant.

IREE started in 2003 to fund renewable energy research projects at the University.

President Eric Kaler spoke at the conference about the importance of the research. He mentioned the wind turbine at UMore Park that the University unveiled in late October âÄî IREE provided part of the money.

Besides the wind turbine, the initiative has funded research on the efficiency of traffic lights, biofuels and solar energy.

The conference drew the attention of some state legislators as well.

âÄúIREE has done a great job in terms of developing as sort of a hub of leading edge renewable energy technology research,âÄù said Rep. Kate Knuth, DFL-New Brighton.

Knuth said she would like to see IREE continue to be funded. âÄúGetting rid of the funding now would undermine the momentum we have,âÄù she said.

Sheehan reinforced the sentiment when he addressed the conference: âÄúBe patient. Long-form investments pay off.âÄù

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said she was disappointed more legislators werenâÄôt at the conference.

âÄúScience and technology are our future,âÄù she said. âÄúWe have to see the future in order to make good decisions.âÄù

But Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said in a phone interview that some lawmakers in the Legislature want to slow funding for renewable energy research.

âÄúThe University has done some good work on behalf of renewable energy and we need to recognize that,âÄù said McNamara, chairman of the House committee that deals with the environment and energy.

âÄúAt the same point, we need to realize [the funding] is paid for by [XcelâÄôs] rate-payers, and we have to make sure if that is an appropriate way to spend rate-payersâÄô money.âÄù

About 70 posters were displayed throughout the building, each detailing the various projects IREE has funded. Attendees voted on a poster that they said clarified a complex idea. David Babson, who completed his Ph.D. at Rutgers University,  researched biofuel productions for the winning poster.

 âÄúIt would be a really bad idea,âÄù Babson said of looming cuts to IREE funding.

âÄúThe real advantage that Minnesota has is that it has a big research university with a lot of research going on,âÄù he said. âÄúCutting funds for things like this, especially renewable energy âĦ [could hinder] future economic growth.âÄù