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corn stalks

A big question in the renewable energy field is whether producing ethanol from corn for use in car engines is more environmentally benign than using fossil fuel.

Looking for energy answers

a recent University symposium explored the latest science

by Deane Morrison

Published on November 23, 2004

Next spring a windmill will rise from the plains of Morris to generate 1.65 megawatts of power, equivalent to about half of the electricity needs for that town's University campus. In a laboratory on the U of M's campus in St. Paul, bacteria and tiny algae are making hydrogen. At the University's Cloquet Forestry Research Center, modular residential roof panels that combine energy efficiency with improved moisture control are undergoing tests.

These are just a few of the projects of the University's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE). Created by the 2003 Minnesota Legislature with funds from Xcel Energy, IREE is part of the President's Initiative on the Environment and Renewable Energy.

IREE is out to make the University a leader in renewable energy technologies and help turn Minnesota into a net exporter of energy. On Thursday (November 18), IREE held a symposium to report on progress to date, including release of its first annual report, and to discuss future directions.

Energy prices often reflect only direct costs like production, transport, and storage while ignoring external costs like adverse health effects of emissions, climate change, and ecological changes from altered land use.

"Minnesota now spends billions of dollars a year to import energy," said Robert Elde, IREE Executive Committee chair and dean of the College of Biological Sciences. "The state has ample renewable resources, such as wind and agricultural biomass, plus the scientific and business expertise to develop them."

IREE has its work cut out for it. According to data presented by IREE director Dick Hemmingsen, the United States uses 26 percent of the world's oil--more than the next five highest consuming nations combined. As the flagship research vessel for the state, the University must lead the way in pushing the country toward sustainable energy. Yet "until a couple of years ago, we saw no 'institutional profile' in renewable energy," Hemmingsen said, meaning the University wasn't doing much visible work in the field.

A profile is now emerging, thanks in large part to research funded by IREE. Here's a rundown of some of the projects presented on Thursday.

In the afternoon session, keynoter James Fischer from the U.S. Department of Energy gave an overview of federal collaborations with states and universities to foster renewable energy technologies. "We could save 10 percent of what we import from Saudi Arabia by increasing the fuel economy to 40 mpg by 2012 and 55 mpg by 2020," he said, advocating work with universities to make it happen. Along those lines, Alfred Marcus, a professor in the Carlson School of Management, said in an interview that the best way to help hybrid electric vehicles gain mass acceptance might be to produce lots of hybrid SUVs, since the buyers of those cars tend to be less sensitive to the price increases associated with hybrid technology.

A video of the symposium will be posted at the IREE Web site in the next few weeks.

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