Energy a hot topic at IREE symposium

Transitioning from fossil fuel energy sources is no longer a choice, but a need.

by Bryce Haugen

Take one part crops, a splash of wind, a hefty dose of entrepreneurial spirit and one esteemed public research university to create a recipe for Minnesota’s energy future.

Since the state boasts all these ingredients, it has what it takes to become energy independent – if it harnesses them effectively, said Lanny Schmidt, a University chemical engineering and materials sciences professor.

Schmidt explored the future of renewable energy in Minnesota at a lecture in Coffman Union on Tuesday night. Earlier in the day, the University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment hosted its third annual research symposium, which highlighted University advancements in the field.

Transitioning from fossil-fuel energy sources isn’t a choice, but rather a necessity, Schmidt said in his frank and occasionally humorous address to a three-quarters-full theater.

“Our economy is toast if we don’t do it right,” he said. “This is the major challenge of the century.”

Since 2003, the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment has distributed nearly $20 million for more than 110 projects involving about 275 University faculty, scientists and students.

The initiative brings together several disparate University entities and takes a several-pronged approach. One division focuses on utilizing hydrogen power, another on improving solar power and a third on developing energy from biofuels.

Schmidt, whose research team has made advancements in harnessing hydrogen

power, said he’s confident

University researchers will come up with viable solutions to the energy issues. In fact,

he said, that’s what they are there for.

“The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones,” he said.

At the IREE symposium, University researchers displayed the fruits of their labor. The event served some key purposes, said IREE Director Dick Hemmingsen. Researchers spent the day bouncing ideas off each other and learning about each other’s work, he said.

That, he said, provides “a better awareness of what some of the challenges and opportunities are.”

Developing renewable energy could help revive Minnesota’s struggling rural economy by creating new industries and jobs, said Vernon Eidman, a University applied economics professor who did not attend either event.

“There could really be quite an impact to the state’s economy,” he said.

The corn-based ethanol industry has already pumped more than $1.5 billion and 5,800 jobs into Minnesota’s economy, according to the state agriculture department. It’s also helped increase corn prices – a boon to farmers, Eidman said.

After Schmidt’s lecture,

one of his former students, University alumnus Mark Snyder, said more people need to hear what the professor has to say.

“The work that he has done is profound,” Snyder said. “Policymakers would be a good target audience.”

But Schmidt said Minnesota politicians from both parties strongly support the research efforts – including Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has

set a goal of having 25 percent of the state’s energy come

from renewable sources by 2025.

Of course, researchers could always use more resources, Hemmingsen said.

“If we as a society are serious about this issue,” he said, “we need to make more investments to develop technological solutions for tomorrow.”