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Leading the way


Symposium on Small Towns examines solutions for energy self-reliance

By Rick Moore

Lowell Rasmussen conducts a tour at UMM's biomass gasification facility.
UMM vice chancellor Lowell Rasmussen conducts a tour of the campus's new biomass gasification facility.

June 10, 2008


Apple jelly: my grandmother
and my great aunt shared a duplex
where an apple tree, two varieties,
twined into one trunk, red gladiolas
along the fence, a double
glider rocker where I took turns
holding hands with the old sisters.
Apple jelly on yeast rolls, a blessing,
like holding hands with time....

Athena Kildegaard's poem "Locally Grown" served as the traditional kickoff for the annual Symposium on Small Towns on the Morris campus last week. But despite the evocative, sensual beauty of Kildegaard's poem, this wasn't an occasion for figuratively sitting on the front porch at twilight, reminiscing about small-town memories of youth. Rather, the sixth annual symposium was an occasion for concerned people from all walks of life--higher education and p-12 school professionals, engineers, elected city leaders, rural development industry specialists, and politicians--to talk about ways to become more energy self-reliant.

The fact that it was held in Morris was both poetic and practical: a leader in the sustainability movement, the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM) is on track to become energy self-sufficient by the year 2010. And it is home to the Center for Small Towns--the host of the symposium--which serves as a resource to organizations working on rural issues or making contributions to rural society.

After opening comments by UMM chancellor Jacquie Johnson--a staunch advocate for energy sustainability--that weaved the sustainable energy movement into the context of other broad social and economic movements, Peter Hutchinson delivered an inspiring, humor-filled keynote address that served as a call to action for those on the ground working for energy solutions.

"Don't shrink from the big stuff. Don't shrink from the notion of food independence and energy independence," Hutchinson reiterated, but don't try to get there in one big leap.

Hutchinson is president of the Bush Foundation and has previously served as the state's Commissioner of Finance and the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. His past experiences, both professional and personal, were the basis for a number of pieces of advice he shared with attendees.

One of them is to "think no small thoughts, but take no big steps." His suggestion is to instead take two small steps a day toward a big goal, which will lead to 700-plus steps a year and 7,000-some steps in a decade, which should guarantee some progress. "Don't shrink from the big stuff. Don't shrink from the notion of food independence and energy independence," he reiterated, but don't try to get there in one big leap.

Hutchinson also suggested that making a big change in the world means you might have to be "unreasonable," rather than, say, waiting for a large task force to come to a consensus on something over the course of many months.

Another piece of advice was based on the Native American wisdom along the lines of, "When you're riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount." Hutchinson's variation: "Don't let yourselves become prisoners of your assumptions if your assumptions wind up being untrue."

Surveying the energy landscape

Several "Energy 101 Classes"--20-minute mini sessions--were offered to give symposium attendees quick primers in various subjects. Examples included "Basics of Biofuels," "Measuring Your Carbon Footprint," "The Economics of Local Ownership," and "Planning for a Sustainable Future."

The showcase presentation on the first day was an up-close look at "The Morris Model." Lowell Rasmussen, vice chancellor for finance and facilities at UMM (who has spent 31 years with the U system), explained how the campus has advanced toward energy self-sufficiency in a remarkably short time frame.

The process began with a spike in the natural gas markets back in 2000-2001, which launched a look into alternative energy sources. It was jump-started with funding from IREE (the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment) in 2003. The 367-foot-tall, 1.65 megawatt wind turbine began spinning in 2005; a state-of-the biomass gasification facility is set to go online this month; and a second wind turbine, which would allow for UMM to supply virtually all its electricity needs, is scheduled to be operational next spring.

A tour of the gasification facility and the wind turbine provided symposium attendees a close-up look at how relatively simple-looking machinery is and will be transforming UMM's energy use.

The biomass gasification facility will be fueled in the beginning principally by corn stover--stalks, leaves, and cobs--but other biomass fuels will be studied over time. The material is conveyed toward the gasifier, where it is heated into an energy-rich syngas. Oxygen is then added to create combustion, and the heat from the combustion will turn water into steam in the boiler. And the goal is to use the byproduct ash as a fertilizer.

Rasmussen also pointed out that sustainable communities will naturally look different from each other. Morris happens to be in the center of a region rich in both wind and biomass potential. But those might not be the answers in other parts of the country. "This is not an easy fix," he said. "This is not one-size-fits-all."


Ratatouille: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant,
onions from the tidy rows out back
where Pop stood in a seedcap
aiming the hose, considering which
David Mamet to teach come fall. Such
a fancy name for plain food,
for a taste of place....

The final day of the symposium got underway with a presentation by Margaret Adamek on "The Lure of the Local: Re-localizing Communities and Organizations." Adamek is an Extension Research Fellow for the U's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and works to support the local foods movement in rural communities around the state.

She talked about the evolution of the globalization movement in food and other goods--a movement which was fed, to a large extent, by the notion that our fossil fuel supplies were inexhaustible.

But factors like the rising cost of gasoline have us reexamining the goals of globalization, and there is now a pendulum swing in public sentiment back toward going local.

People mingle at an energy poster session
Attendees of the Symposium on Small Towns mingle at an energy showcase session.

Re-localization requires a reduction in consumption and advocates an increase in the local production of goods, Adamek said. And it creates a self-sustaining ecosystem of locally produced food and goods. This leads to smaller economies of scale and often an emphasis on quality rather than quantity.

She used beer as an example. The mega breweries of St. Louis are designed to produce (and transport) beer for the entire nation and beyond, and their product is centered around consistent flavor and the lowest price point. Conversely, the microbreweries in Portland, Oregon, brew beer primarily to meet local and regional demand. And their success is based, in large part, on craftsmanship and the flavor of place.

The symposium concluded with two panels focused on the politics of energy, one with state legislators and a second (for the first time at the symposium) featuring federal energy experts talking about the relationship between state and federal energy policy.

Some of the themes that emerged from the legislative panels were similar to those that surfaced for the overall symposium. Minnesota is at ground zero of the movement for sustainable energy; rural Minnesota is in a good position to capitalize on the use of alternative fuels; and we must continue to push the envelope to ensure that our energy choices a decade from now are smarter than they are today.

"We've certainly come a long way in the last 15 years," said state Rep. Torrey Westrom from Elbow Lake, about 30 miles north of Morris. And while he noted that cost will be a key factor in developing future energy solutions, "we will never get there if we don't blend in some new ideas with the traditional way we've done things."


September sweet corn: the brown Buick's trunk
full of ears, a garbage can for silks
and husks, we sat in the driveway, sang "This old man,
he played four, he played knick-knack,"
until Mom went in to the cool kitchen
where she cut kernels off cobs
and shaped ground beef into burgers
we ate later with the last husked ears,
with the sun teetering on the horizon.


To read Athena Kildegaard's poem in its entirety, see Locally Grown.