University spearheads renewable-energy research

by Jason Juno

It will be a long time before fossil fuels are replaced, but the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment is using state funding to research the possibility.

Amounting to approximately $20 million when finished, the project aims to use Minnesota’s resources and develop renewable resources, said Dick Hemmingsen, the initiative’s director.

Hemmingsen said marketing renewable fuels to the masses and finding ways to store and move it are the main issues the project deals with.

University student Rachel LaNasa said she supports the University’s program.

“Energy is going to run out sooner or later,” she said.

She also said she thinks it is good the University is doing the research, because the best minds are here.

Hemmingsen said University students benefit in many ways from the research. Graduate students are doing some of the research, and the University has added classes in the subject. A whole new major could even develop, he said.

According to The Associated Press, trucking and automotive industries opposed Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plan to double the amount of ethanol in gasoline, which is meant to make the fuel more environmentally friendly and decrease state dependence on foreign oil.

Hemmingsen said fewer fossil fuels would produce fewer greenhouse gases, and that will help everybody.

Ethanol is produced from corn, and corn takes a year to renew, unlike hundreds of millions of years for fossil fuels, he said.

The project studies hydrogen; bioenergy and bioproducts; and conservation and efficient energy, but that research is in the early stages. The project received the first portion of its state funding in July 2003 and will study the public policy, economic and environmental implications of all the issues, Hemmingsen said.

Hydrogen has also been at the center of discussion in the search for ways to reduce fossil-fuel dependence.

Plastic also is made from fossil fuels, but, Hemmingsen said, it could be produced from biomass. Twin Cities-based Cargill Dow is already using micro-organisms to produce the product.

Another area of focus for the project is energy conservation.

“All energy, whether it’s from coal or renewable, we should use it efficiently,” Hemmingsen said.

That means more energy-efficient windows, heating areas and solar power, Hemmingsen said.

Shri Ramaswamy is head of the biobased department, which used to be named the wood and paper department.

He said that as “fossil fuels become more expensive, we have to come up with ways we can use more resources.”

He said renewable energy, such as ethanol from corn, is biobased.

Hemmingsen said the group is going slowly and will decide if the focus areas should be narrowed or expanded. Ten million dollars of that money was used up front, while the rest is approximately $2 million per year, depending on Xcel Energy rates. That money is from Xcel’s conservation funds.