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Home / News / Democratic thermodynamics on the Hilty committee: Trillions of BTUs and clean energy from the bottom up!

Democratic thermodynamics on the Hilty committee: Trillions of BTUs and clean energy from the bottom up!

[An excerpt of this story was first published in last Friday’s PIM Weekly Report.]With the dismal budget scene, Capitol hearings can be quite a depressing experience. However, last Wednesday, Rep. Bill Hilty‘s (DFL-Finlayson) Committee on Energy Finance and Policy let some sunshine in, with a broad array of policy and finance bills that would pave the way for more green jobs and energy independence from the bottom up. However, tensions around the licensing of green technology, federal stimulus policy, and prospective carbon taxes were also present. With gasoline edging back over $2/gallon this week, it’s high time to look carefully at energy policy.

It’s unfortunate there aren’t good cameras in the basement hearing room for this committee, since Minnesotans have to face up to the overarching problem of what some call the global thermodynamic crisis (involving interlocking issues of energy scarcity, rapidly depleting fossil fuels, pollution, and a financial system struggling against these physical limits). Fortunately, the day’s policy solutions involved helping everyone collect energy, conserve what’s already generated, and develop a permanent green job base.

The federal stimulus bill is complex (and Republicans didn’t like its prevailing wage rules, which seem to affect all the projects it supports) but it is directed towards new, accountable energy systems. Bill Glahn and Jeremy DeFiebre from the Office of Energy Security explained the Department of Commerce approach to the stimulus money. $15 million in federal money would be handled by Rep. Al Juhnke‘s (DFL-Willmar) HF 1723/SF 1699, via the commissioners of Commerce and Agriculture, and the Energy Security office. Production of biofuels, commercial-scale energy collectors, and displacing fossil fuel energy inputs with renewable sources would be project priorities. Juhnke stressed the merits of projects, like one approach that recaptures carbon dioxide through algae, which in turn generate biodiesel, and the likely federal funds that can be collected for setting up such programs.

Another top stimulus implementation bill is Rep. Jeremy Kalin‘s (DFL-North Branch) HF 680/SF 657, which deals with weatherization, where energy savings get funneled, government and school building renovation, a residential window replacement program, and training a new workforce to implement the energy programs. It also sets up reporting on energy savings and budget results. [A huge chunk of Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions come from heating buildings.]

Rep. Dave Olin‘s (DFL-Thief River Falls) HF 958/SF 961 deals with funding energy-efficient programs residences and better windows for public buildings; this would help the state economy by prompting purchases of cutting-edge energy-saving windows developed and manufactured in-state by Marvin Windows & Doors and Anderson Corporation in recent years, but it would also permanently reduce ongoing energy costs, ultimately paying back the investments in a few years. The EnergyStar program has set higher window efficiency criteria for 2010, which in theory will save trillions of BTUs of energy; we heard that the guidelines for insulation and windows would give a 3000 square foot home in Minneapolis 37 to 43% in energy savings.

Accountability and testing for new solar energy devices is sorely needed: certifications are required to get the gadgets subsidized, but the one available American testing facility’s queue has been swamped and actually suspended, we heard, leaving only one active test lab in Canada. Thus, Rep. Brita Sailer‘s (DFL-Park Rapids) HF 1748/SF 1647 would create a national solar testing and certification lab at U of M-Morris with $3 million in federal stimulus money (specifically to the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment). [Morris has a lot of good projects going on already, including a working method of getting fertilizer-ready nitrogen via windmill power.] The lab would deal with solar air and water devices as well as electrical generation.

Also, Sailer’s HF 1626/SF1726 would deal with $5 million in federal money for solar projects on public buildings, as well, with each item paying for itself in 15 years for thermal devices and 20 years for photovoltaics. Sailer noted that Germany receives much less solar energy than Minnesota, but still has set up thousands of kilowatts of generators, thus discounting the notion it’s too dark for solar to compete here. It was noted that solar thermal work in East Grand Forks has caused a plunge in natural gas consumption, which prompted surprise from the local utility.

Local projects are in the works, including geothermal heating systems for schools (like HF 588/SF 572). Obviously, energy inputs are a huge, volatile school district budget line. It was pointed out that these systems have extremely predictable, essentially fixed costs per BTU, which compares well to volatile natural gas and fuel oil prices. Rep. Sheldon Johnson‘s (DFL-St. Paul) HF 1469/SF 996 is the “Trillion BTU” St. Paul Port Authority project , which would implement a program to install energy efficiency improvements in commercial and industrial buildings. It was pointed out that the Port Authority has plenty of solid experience with business loans and financing improvements. Smaller items like a furnace for Cromwell (Hilty’s HF 1741/SF 1589) would also be purchased by the federal stimulus money.

Small business and tech incubation centers are also proposed; a good example is Rep. Dave Olin‘s (DFL-Thief River Falls) HF 1052/SF 673 providing $300,000 for a “Go Green Business Center” in Kennedy, which has a good shot at getting federal matching funds, we heard, and local farmers have chipped in fuel oil. This center would likely house three businesses and partner with schools and colleges to share knowledge as well as generate green jobs. Other bills: Rep. Kent Eken‘s (DFL-Twin Valley) HF 1408/SF 1194, a grant program for small power producers, and Rep. David Dill‘s (DFL-Crane Lake) HF 1730/SF 1587, kick-starting a locally fueled next-generation biomass facility, reducing emissions by burning local feedstock and agricultural waste material. [This approach, displacing coal inputs, is dubbed “Renewafuel” by Cliffs Natural Resources, whose general manager for alternate fuels, Rico Biasetti, spoke about. IRRRB already gave a low-interest loan for part of this large project.]

Rep. Kathy Brynaert (DFL-Mankato) proposed (HF 1737/SF 1640) a one-time appropriation of $1,500,000 for setting up the International Renewable Energy Technical Institute (IREITI) at Minnesota State University-Mankato, a public-private partnership that would import, license and facilitate the manufacturing of Swedish energy technologies (in particular helping devices get certified to American standards). Longtime faculty member John Frey would set up the Institute, which only needs a bit of salary and equipment money. Rep. Kate Knuth (DFL-New Brighton) raised an interesting point: how would this entity be governed? (Additional questions: would it simply funnel public efforts into private profits? How would the licensing work?) A year ago, Minnesota beat more than a dozen other states in getting the Swedes on board, and now they are getting a bit impatient, a testifier warned. Of course, Sweden and Minnesota share close cultural ties (as well as a chilly environment), and it shouldn’t be overlooked that the rather socialist country wants to share the latest techniques, likely on a generous basis. The Swedes have made their devices generate energy efficiently in colder climates, so it seems like a no-brainer to get things rolling rapidly.

Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) proposed a bit of renovation funding for a building on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation that would house a non-profit solar electric, hot water and heating device manufacturing facility, in a 50-50 joint venture between the Leech Lake Tribal Government and Pine River’s Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, Inc. (RREAL). As project coordinator Dan Evans noted, The nonprofit RREAL already is manufacturing, but wants to scale up production in the new building. The group would first market their patent-pending cold-weather solar collectors in particular to Native American communities in the Midwest which would “combat fuel poverty” and help hold down (heavily subsidized) fuel costs, as well as providing permanent green jobs to the chronically unemployed and underemployed Leech Lake residents. [Solar water heaters, in particular, are a common feature of life in China and elsewhere; the technology has been proven for decades and should take off commercially with just a bit of help.]

RREAL founding director Jason Edens flagged a crucial issue: today a “renewable divide” between people of different income levels is increasing, much like the “digital divide.” A key goal of RREAL is to create a renewable economy with “pathways” to make these energy technologies available to people of all income levels. Minnesota spends nearly $80 million annually on fuel assistance, and this money could be replaced with sustainable technologies, if only they can get them certified, Edens pointed out.

Will these technologies support a bottom-up energy revolution or a licensing bonanza for powerful companies (likely forced on the public through big carbon regulation schemes)? Big military-industrial corporations like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin have used taxpayer funding over decades to develop (and often purchase) crucial energy technologies, like hydrogen fuel cells and advanced batteries. It was just announced (and we’re not making this up) that the Pentagon’s DARPA research agency has planned out a military solar/hydrogen fuel cell-powered blimp , no doubt powered by these contractors’ patented devices. Does the control – and licensing – of energy technology tilt the playing field towards the powerful, and give them a bonus in the “carbon economy” now developing? Is it appropriate to set up state-level carbon taxing schemes when powerful companies are sitting on technology and intellectual property that instead could be applied by independent inventors and tinkerers like RREAL across the country? It seems likely only a bottom-up approach will fish us out of the thermodynamic crisis; the renewable divide is going to be far too big to ignore.

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