E3 Conference Recap – The Latest in Renewable Energy
Three hundred people gathered at the University of Minnesota on November 7, 2011 to hear renewable energy success stories at a conference hosted by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), a program of the Institute on the Environment. These stories came from the corporate sector (3M, DuPont, and Spain’s Abengoa), the German Consulate, renowned green technology author and editor Alexis Madrigal, and University of Minnesota researchers. Joining the experts were scientists, engineers, policy makers, legislators, graduate students, economic development folks, entrepreneurs, and patent attorneys. The news is: it’s all good. Renewable energy technologies are showing healthy bottom lines, creating jobs, and the political tide is beginning to change.
Setting the tone for the day, IREE managing director Dick Hemmingsen shared the Initiative’s vision: to be the Midwest’s Silicon Valley in renewable energy and natural resources. This is highly plausible considering that 7.7 million acres of corn were harvested for grain this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, www.nass.usda.gov. With support from Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund and the Minnesota State Legislature, IREE provides seed money through grants to University of Minnesota researchers to carry out its mission. In 2011, the Initiative awarded $4.1 million in grants and has leveraged more than $69 million in renewable energy research since its founding in 2003. Since state legislature funding is up for consideration this year, this event gave University researchers ample opportunity to showcase their cutting-edge research.
Tracy Anderson, 3M’s director of renewable energy, presented a talk on “Aligning Capabilities to Industry Needs.” Just five years ago, 3M began focusing on solar, wind, and biofuels to make products such as solar controls, residential window films, and commercial window films. Anderson attributes the company’s success in renewable energy to engaging customers around the world, identifying their pain points, and aligning customer needs with 3M’s technical capabilities. Initially, 3M executives met with 100 companies around the world and quickly built a global team. Establishing 3M as subject matter experts in the areas of biofuels, solar, and wind also played an instrumental role in the company’s success.
Robin Jenkins, Sustainability Competency Leader at DuPont, shared the company’s “Sustainable Growth in Industrial Biosciences,” with a focus on biofuels and cellulosic ethanol. She spoke about the different supply chain levels: functionality, economics, and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). DuPont uses LCA as an internal benchmark and a tool to quantify environmental benefits that enables leaders to make better decisions. Jenkins attributed DuPont’s success in the field to “inclusive innovation,” or collaboration. The company is currently working with its subsidiary, Danisco, at a demonstration facility in Tennessee where they are exploring the use of corn stover as a biomaterial for personal care products. They are also setting up a commercial feedstock supply model to develop the commercialization of a stover-to-ethanol biorefinery. In the future, they plan to use corn cobs as feedstock and work in Iowa.
Gerson Santos-León, executive vice president of Abengoa, a global biotech ethanol company headquartered in Seville, Spain, spoke about “Innovative Technology Solutions for Sustainability.” “Not only are renewable energy solutions the right thing to do for the environment and customers, it’s also a good business,” says Santos-León. Abengoa has achieved 70 percent growth in renewable energy business totaling $5.5 billion Euros ($7.5 billion). The company currently employs 26,500 people in 600 subsidiary companies in 70 countries. “You cannot grow a business without innovation,” says Santos-León, adding that Abengoa honors its sustainable obligations in the marketplace by developing technology—with 900 employees dedicated to Research & Development (R & D). But he’s quick to add that growth involves change and pain.
As a leader in second-generation biofuels, Abengoa develops new alternatives in hydrogen, marine energy, and energy crops. Santos-León says, “Biofuels are fast growing and represent a 30 percent increase in sales in Spain, France, and Holland. Abengoa’s goal is for biofuels to make up 60 percent of the global fuel demand by 2030.” He cited logistics and arbitration as key challenges as well as a lot of change and transition in the transportation sector with new findings in Brazil and Cuba. “It’s hard to keep up with the demand for fossil fuels. China and India have experienced growth in the transportation sector.” Santos-León later added that the solution lies in energy crops.
Excited about new developments in South and North America, Santos-León reports that Abengoa’s solar group built 70 plants in South America last year. A global pioneer in solar technology, the company also initiated two R & D projects in Concentrating Solar Power in the U.S. last year: one in Phoenix, Arizona and another in the Mohave Desert in California, the Mohave Solar Project. Supported by a loan guarantee of $1.2 billion from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Mohave Project is expected to create 1,900 jobs.
As a world leader in producing drinking water from sea water and processing industrial waste, Abengoa built water plants in China and North Africa. With more than 90 patents to its credit, the company is starting to work on commercialization efforts with support from the DOE and Spanish government.
Friedo Sielemann of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. reported on Germany’s success in decreasing greenhouse gases by more than 24 percent since 1990. Wind, biomass, and solar are the strongest renewable areas. Renewable energy has grown more than 20 percent of electricity production during the first half of 2011, according to Sielemann. Moreover, there’s broad support for renewable energy in Germany. For example, 54 percent of the population is okay with the cost, and surprisingly, 25 percent of the population want to pay more for renewable energy.
“It’s not do we have to do it, but how it needs to be done, and who is going to pay? And tax breaks,” says Sielemann, adding “… the country cannot make progress without taking the people along,” emphasizing both the social effects and the necessary fight for acceptance in using renewable energy.
The German government isn’t worried about new houses, or “zero energy homes” that use solar for warmth, says Sielemann, “But the houses built in the 1950s and 1960s after World War II pose a challenge for implementing weatherization.”
On the jobs front, he says, “Yes, green jobs do exist. There are 370,000.”
The German government plans to phase out nuclear power with a shutdown by 2022. Sielemann says, “There’s work to be done in reducing CO2 from coal …. Germany’s Department of Economics and Department of Environment want to reduce CO2 by 40 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050.”
Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic and host of The Atlantic’s Technology Channel, galvanized the conversation by providing the big picture from a political perspective—along with an impassioned plea to revisit both our attitudes and semantics around the environment.
“Climate change is a divisive issue and the politics of it started to change last year …. The issue is best framed not as an environmental problem, but [as] a human infrastructure problem. We created it and we’re going to solve it,” said Madrigal, adding, “We start to see people change about climate change when we see it having an impact on their lives—as the elephant in the room. Social change is a necessary component of technological change; it’s a reciprocal relationship.” Showing a slide of a Brooklyn neighborhood paralyzed by a recent snow storm, Madrigal says, “The climate that cities are built for are not the climate that cities are going to have …. Until government experiences a changing baseline for their city, they’re not going to do anything.”
“Historically, the word ‘environment’ has connotations and they’re not all fair—referring to the hippies of the 1960s and The Whole Earth Catalog. We need to get away from Saving the Earth,” says Madrigal. Instead, he suggests bold companies, long-term R & D, and entrepreneurialism to promote growth in green technology and create a larger audience. “Green technology doesn’t have heros . . . we need new heros for the environmental movement—to draw more people than we currently have. Henry David Thoreau was an icon …. We need a bigger tent to drive forward politically,” he says.
Madrigal also recounted the early history of green technology derived from his new book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. He told the story of Lowell, Massachusetts that produced clean power from the Merrimack River in 1833 that met with opposition by Henry David Thoreau. And he spoke of John Etzler, the first green futurist who wanted to save the world, and other luminaries of long ago. Ending on a positive note, he encouraged energy entrepreneurs “… to have faith in what you’re doing. You’re on the right side of history. The politics are going to change … [and] engineers are the best messengers.”
The afternoon sessions consisted of University of Minnesota research presentations, most of which were highly technical. Marc Hillmyer presented a talk on “Green Chemistry and the Center for Sustainable Polymers”; Lowell Rasmussen presented an impressive account of “Using Renewable Resources to Manage a Campus Carbon Footprint” on the Morris campus; Susan Mantell presented “Solar Energy in Cold Climates”; and Martin Saar presented “Combining Geothermal Energy Capture with CO2 Sequestration.”
Patrick Huelman of NorthernSTAR Building America Partnership reiterated a well known fact that 50 percent of energy use is in buildings and residential use is half of that. He recommended replacing the furnace and water heater simultaneously to avoid serious combustion safety issues. Huelman also explored foundation heat loss and ice dams in homes—just in time for another Minnesota winter.