University of Minnesota Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment Annual Research Symposium

The University of Minnesota Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) held its annual research Symposium on Tuesday November 28, 2006 at the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota campus. This public event was an opportunity for University of Minnesota faculty and researchers to present new research on topics related to renewable energy and the environment.

IREE was initiated in early 2003 as the result of a number of informal discussions within the University regarding the need to raise the profile of renewable energy research at the University and across the state of Minnesota. The University engaged in discussion with state legislators that were interested in similar goals and during 2003 the legislature directed funds to support the work of IREE. A more complete description of the history of IREE is available on the IREE web site.

The symposium included presentations by a number of University faculty and staff that ranged from a description of the program's relevance to the local and global state of the world to in-depth discussions of the potential use of nanotechnology for the production of solar cells. The presentations and more information about this event are available online.

There were several items that I was particularly interested in during the presentations. Dick Hemmingsen, the Director of IREE, emphasized the need to develop a multidisciplinary systems approach when considering the increasing application of renewable energy sources. He stressed that the move toward renewable energy sources will be a significant departure from our traditional energy procurement, distribution and delivery models. Director Hemmingsen provided two examples for why a multidisciplinary systems approach is necessary. First, energy production will increasingly compete with food production. And second, we need to develop solutions to our local challenges but we must do this while being mindful of the global impact of our decisions. If we do not keep other topics such as these in mind as we develop new technologies we will only be shifting the problem rather than fixing it.

Following Director Hemmingsen’s presentation Professor Eray Aydil presented research that his lab is currently working on that utilizes nanoparticles and nanowires to fundamentally change the way solar cells are manufactured. Professor Aydil argued that based on the current technology used to manufacture solar cells it will take until 2040 for solar cells to be price competitive with other energy sources. This time frame is far too long considering that if we were able to cover just 0.1% of the earth’s surface with 10% efficient solar cells we would be able to provide all the energy necessary for 10 billion people. Because of this, Professor Aydil has focused his research on ideas that could revolutionize the production of solar cells to bring down the cost and potentially even allow people to make their own solar cells from widely available materials in their own kitchen.

The keynote speaker for the day, Don Shelby, was a person that is very recognizable in the Twin Cities and great Minnesota. Mr. Shelby is a News Anchor and Reporter for WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate, in Minneapolis. Mr. Shelby began a series of reports, called Project Energy, several years ago that explore energy production and consumption of Minnesotans and the effects of these patterns on the community and planet. Through that experience Mr. Shelby has created an analogy that I found to be very powerful. During his presentation he equated American’s addition to oil to be similar to the addition of an alcoholic or drug addict. Mr. Shelby openly discusses his own alcoholism and the challenges he has faced over the last 28 years that he has been sober and compares the behavioral patterns of alcohol or drug addicts to the behavior of American’s energy consumption. As Mr. Shelby said, we American’s show a clear willingness to do whatever it takes to keep the energy coming at any cost. Since hearing this presentation by Mr. Shelby I’ve been viewing the energy behavior of American’s and of the big oil companies through this lens. I’ve found that this behavior makes much more sense to me when I view Americans (and anyone else in the world that aspires to our lifestyle) as the addict and the oil companies as the dealer.

The symposium was a great way for the University and State of Minnesota to show off some of the very exciting ideas and work that is being done here. It was clear to everyone in attendance that we’re only at the beginning of the process of understanding our energy future and that events like this are key steps along that path.