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Symposium panel: Local energy a must in uncertain times

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By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Communities will need to keep seeking new energy alternatives, in addition to some of the ground-breaking work already being done in rural Minnesota.

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Five state legislators addressed local energy in a forum that was part of the sixth-annual Symposium on Small Towns Wednesday at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

Research on various wind-generated energy alternatives and biomass being done now in Morris represents a "great future" for the work needed to take Minnesotans and the rest of the country into the next generation of fuels now that high gas prices appear here to stay, said Rep. Torrey Westrom, District 11A's Minnesota House representative.

"We can't do what we did in the '70s, when prices dropped and we quit the research," Westrom said. "Imagine where we'd be if we had those 30 years (of research and development) behind us."

Westrom was joined on the panel by Rep. Jean Wagenius, of Minneapolis, Rep. Bill Hilty, of Finlayson, Sen. Ellen Anderson, of St. Paul, and Sen. Gary Kubly, of Granite Falls.

The panel discussed a wide range of energy alternatives, some of which are established, like ethanol, and others that loom on the horizon, such as extracting oil from algae.

Hilty said that a lot of the "heavy lifting" on state energy policy was done in 2007 with the enactment of renewable energy standards. Next generation energy bills will include more design guidelines for sustainable building, he said.

The need is there, he said. Based on current trends of economic growth and resource use, the consumption of energy could double in the 35 years.

In addition to technology to grow algae at wastewater treatment plants as a potential oil source Kubly said that fluid power has helped produce a 40 percent fuel savings on metro-area test buses, and that research is continuing on implementing the technology in passenger vehicles.

Kubly noted wryly that technology also is being perfected that would allow people to make ethanol in their backyards.

"That's nothing new," Kubly said with a smile. "My grandfather had one in his basement."

Kubly also predicted that solar energy would "explode" in popularity in the near future, and that he would like to see solar panels for research erected near the Morris wind turbine.

Solar energy now brings some of the highest profit margins in the industry, which would lure investment money and help improve the technology, such as storage ability. If the price for solar systems dropped 10 percent, the technology would gain widespread acceptance.

"I think solar will be the cheapest thing out there," Kubly said. "I think there's a lot of potential out there."

Anderson said that other possibilities include requiring utilities to repay to customers the cost and a small profit for investing in energy-saving technologies that might also feed energy back into the grid system. Those incentives would encourage the public to use solar, wind and other power sources.

Wagenius said efficiency was a key to rethinking energy. For example, she said it was easier for her to buy Minnesota-grown foods at farmers markets in the Twin Cities than in Alexandria, which is close to a farm she owns near Kensington.

Wagenius also touted home composting, updating home insulation and intelligent use of groundwater and reuse of wastewater. Despite being the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she said, "we're not as water rich as we think we are."

Westrom said communities are quickly adopting new energy alternatives -- in some cases, too quickly.

The demand for wind turbines -- and manufacturers' desire to fill large orders first -- has smaller communities and buyers waiting, with money in hand, for turbines. The university is ready to erect a second wind turbine at the West Central Research and Outreach Center site, but can't find a turbine to buy.

Kubly and Westrom said legislation allowing the aggregate purchase of turbines by groups and communities may alleviate those problems and make it possible for more local production of energy.

The panel agreed that corn ethanol is a necessary first step to eventually using cellulosic materials to produce it.

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