Renewable energy grants will end

The Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment grant program is in its final round at the University.

Hailey Colwell

A program that has funded more than 200 renewable energy research projects at the University of Minnesota over the past decade will come to a close after this year.

In 2012, the state Legislature passed a bill allowing Xcel to keep ratepayer funds rather than transfer them to the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment grant program, which funds renewable energy research and development at the University.

In the final year of the program, $2.6 million will be funneled through the program, which uses funds from the Xcel Renewable Energy Development fund. This fund will stay intact but will no longer fund IREE.

“We’re disappointed that the Legislature decided that the funds should be managed in a different way,” said Lewis Gilbert, associate director of the University’s Institute on the Environment, which houses IREE.

“It certainly is a blow to our ability to support energy innovation.”

A portion of Xcel’s funding will still go to developing renewable electric technologies at colleges and universities, IREE Director Richard Hemmingsen said.

“It pretty sharply narrowed the focus,” Hemmingsen said.

IonE is putting together a proposal to compete for the small amount of funding Xcel has designated for higher education institutions, Gilbert said.

“We’re confident we can put together a strong proposal,” he said. “The IREE track record is indicative of that.”

IonE will continue to invest in energy research “one way or another,” Gilbert said.

“It will be at a much lower level than what was afforded through the IREE program, but we will continue to look for innovations across the spectrum related to Minnesota’s energy needs and the energy needs of the world,” Gilbert said.

The IREE program also supported state-funded research projects at the University, taking the financial burden from the individual colleges conducting the projects, Hemmingsen said.

“It has been a great boon to the colleges and departments to have IREE to help be able to support this institutional cost share,” he said, “especially in the light of the significant reductions in public support to the University over the past several years.”

Agronomy and plant genetics professor Nicholas Jordan’s project received $375,000 from the final round of IREE grants.

With IREE funding, Jordan will be able to work with farmers to grow biomass, a type of plant tissue made up of living and dead organisms. He said growing biomass crops increases the landscape’s resilience against climate change as well as helping increase water and soil conservation.

Jordan said he appreciates the IREE grant program because it helps projects that are too developed for small grants but too risky for competitive federal funding.

“There’s quite a few interesting and important things that slip through the cracks of that federal system,” Jordan said. “[IREE] has allowed for projects to get started at this kind of difficult scale.”

Another project funded by the last round of IREE grants will explore ways to integrate wind and solar energy into Minnesota power grids. The funding will allow the convergence of expertise in energy policy, law and engineering, said Peter Seiler, an assistant aerospace professor involved in the project.

“This is just a good opportunity to work across boundaries,” he said.

Seiler said though IREE will no longer receive funds from Xcel, he hopes the University will benefit from the smaller portion of funding Xcel will still designate to electrical research at state colleges.

“We’re optimistic about how those funds are still going to be used,” he said.