State-funded University initiative works toward renewable-energy solutions

by Bridget Haeg

University professors and researchers are working to research and promote renewable energy.

The Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment has four groups that cover various issues, including finding more energy-efficient windows to encouraging community renewable energy awareness.

The State Legislature granted the University $20 million to fund renewable energy research.

“It’s not going to be hard at all to figure out ways to spend this money,” said Dick Hemmingsen, the initiative’s interim director.

But the challenge comes in identifying and taking maximum advantage of Minnesota’s distinct opportunities and natural resources, he said.

“IREE is almost a virtual center in that there isn’t a building. It’s a process; it’s a mechanism,” Hemmingsen said.

University faculty lead the initiative’s different groups and help cultivate idea-sharing between departments.

“We are a very, very unique university in that all of these disciplines are under one roof,” Hemmingsen said.

Mechanical engineering professor Thomas Kuehn and John Carmody, campus-level director of the Center for Sustainable Building Research, are combining their areas of expertise in an initiative project.

They are working to develop more energy-efficient and less costly building window systems, Kuehn said.

Initiative officials are still sorting through the ideas that bubble up from the groups, Hemmingsen said.

“We are taking somewhat of a ‘go slow’ approach at this point,” he said.

The initiative works to leverage funding among proposals, some of which is done through smaller grants to stimulate group work, Hemmingsen said.

Faculty and researchers often appeal to funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation for large grants, which allows initiative officials to give smaller amounts of money to more projects, he said.

“It’s very unlikely that IREE will be the sole source of research funding for any project,” Hemmingsen said.

The Clean Energy Resource Teams project relies partially on the initiative’s funding.

The project works to help communities develop a future in renewable energy, said Cynthia Pansing, statewide coordinator with the University’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnership.

Sophomore Shannon Drake serves as an undergraduate research assistant in the resource teams’ southeast region.

She said she gathers information from power companies on their policies and energy-efficiency programs.

The initiative funds almost the entire community-faculty partnership, but a number of different sources support the project itself, Pansing said.