Common Interests

We’ve been having discussions about energy and the environment for a long time, but it’s only recently that any kind of consensus has emerged around the topics.

Older modes of thinking that construed environmentalists as “tree-huggers” who stood in opposition to progress and economic growth have been cast aside. The new consensus, in the face of grave environmental and economic problems, embraces both trees and economic development.

In part, this shift results from external pressures like the impact of global climate change and the growing scarcity of oil. But it’s also a natural consequence of years of research in organizations like the University of Minnesota’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, a signature program of the Institute on the Environment.

IREE Innovators

IREE launched in 2003, and from the start, it personified this integrated approach. “Before we had a name or any funding, we had a mission,” says Dick Hemmingsen, IREE’s director and founder, “which was to concurrently address technology, energy, economic development and healthy ecosystems.”

Specifically, the organization sought to galvanize faculty at the U of M who expressed an interest in research in alternative energy and policy. “We made an early decision to tease out of the woodwork faculty who were interested, so we cast the nets widely,” says Hemmingsen.

Since then, the initiative has awarded some $20 million in grants to more than 140 research projects in alternative energy sources like bioenergy, solar, wind, hydro, hydrogen and geothermal; as well as projects to increase energy efficiency and policy-based research.

One of the more high-profile projects has been work by U of M ecologist David Tilman, whose research focuses on mixed ethanol feedstocks and has repeatedly made news headlines around the world. (Biofuels research makes up about 40 percent of IREE’s funding, according to Hemmingsen.)

Other projects range from engineering efforts to improve battery quality to attempts to convert wind power to anhydrous ammonia. On the policy side, IREE has focused on life cycle assessment of alternative energy, a key set of methods for making public investment decisions about alternative fuels.

IREE’s early work and successes positioned the organization for today’s renewed interest in energy, the environment and economic development. For Hemmingsen, it’s been gratifying to watch this reawakening.

“We in the U.S. have been largely oblivious. We’ve had cheap energy—both transportation and electrical,” he says. “Now there’s a real transformation. Four-dollar-a-gallon gas gets a lot of people’s attention, and more people are seeing environmental impacts. Increasingly, there are more and more concerns about energy independence. It’s all coming together to drive interest.”

And, with a recent annual funding pledge of $5 million a year from the Minnesota Legislature, IREE will be at the center of the transformation.


JOSEPH HART is a freelance writer and editor, an author, and a contributing editor to the Utne Reader, where he covers a range of topics including alternative energy and green issues. He lives and works in Viroqua, Wis.