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Feature

The new wind turbine in Morris

The new wind turbine in Morris towers 367 feet above the plain.

New wind turbine powers Morris

Project is key component of renewable-energy initiative

By Deane Morrison

Originally published on April 21, 2005; updated on April 22

With gas prices going through the roof, it's not hard to envision the day when the world switches to renewable energy. The transition won't be simple, but the University is helping Minnesota find a path through the maze of technologies to a future where net greenhouse gas emissions are minimal or nonexistent and dependence on foreign oil is a thing of the past. On Earth Day (April 22) the University formally commissioned a new wind turbine that symbolizes the coming renewable-energy economy even as it powers and empowers the rural area where it stands.

The 367-foot turbine towers above the plain at the Renewable Energy Research and Demonstration Center, part of the University's West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris, Minnesota. Only a mile from the University's Morris campus, the turbine, which has been operating for about two months, supplies half the electricity for the campus and its 2,000 students. This is just the first step in a massive project to put together a constellation of renewable-energy technologies and see which ones work the best, and in what combination.

Minnesota is well positioned to lead the nation in renewable-energy research and demonstrations because the state is well endowed with both wind and plant material (biomass). Already, the state is a leader in the production of ethanol, the best-known biofuel, with 14 plants producing 300 million gallons a year.

"Renewable energy is poised to become an important part of our state and nation's energy future, and Minnesota will be a leader in this work," says Cuomo.

"This kind of project is globally unique," says Greg Cuomo, head of the WCROC. "We know of no other group that is putting together a system that integrates wind, biomass, biofuels, and hydrogen, ranging from basic research at the University to work to evaluate [the new technologies] for commercialization and rural development. This is a way to revitalize rural areas. Renewable energy offers the kinds of professional jobs that will bring young people back to rural areas."

Wind energy can't be stored; currently, excess energy from the turbine goes to the electric grid for general use. In the works, however, is a system to use the excess wind energy to generate hydrogen from water. The hydrogen can then be stored and used when the need arises. The system will also stimulate the use of renewable hydrogen for applications like fuel cells and localized fertilizer production. (Traditional fertilizer production uses copious amounts of fossil fuel energy.)

Part of the project will focus on biodiesel, a fuel similar to petroleum-based diesel that can be made from vegetable oils and potentially crop or wood waste. Biodiesel can be made from soy oil, but it has limitations as a fuel for car engines. Working with David Kittelson, professor of mechanical engineering, and Roger Ruan, professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering, the WCROC hopes to test additives or new fuels to work in engines, Cuomo says.

Also in the works is a biomass-powered heating and cooling facility to be located at the UMM campus. Already designed, the facility will gasify biomass, producing a mix of combustible gases similar to natural gas. University researchers are studying how to make different kinds of biomass "look the same" to a gasifier, so that it can run on more fuels than cornstalks, the obvious candidate, says Cuomo.

Governor Tim Pawlenty attended the commissioning, and broadcast from Morris on his "Good Morning Minnesota" show on WCCO Radio. The wind-to-hydrogen project has received initial funding from the state Commerce Department, the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources (pending), and the University's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, part of the President's Initiative on Environment and Renewable Energy. Funds for the biomass facility were approved in the capital bonding bill at the legislature.

"Renewable energy is poised to become an important part of our state and nation's energy future, and Minnesota will be a leader in this work," says Cuomo.

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