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Energy Roundtable

To be a national and global renewable-energy leader requires investing heavily in research, infrastructure, financing, public policy and developing talent.

Minnesota is ready, say many business, agricultural and political leaders. Facilitated by AURI, bioenergy leaders initiated the Renewable Energy Roundtable, a diverse group that includes bankers, politicians,

processors, educators, researchers, economic developers, environmentalists, funders, utility managers and others who want to build one of the world’s preeminent bioenergy industries in Minnesota.

“Minnesota is the only state I’m aware of that’s doing something like,” says Michael Sparby, AURI project director. The sessions start with a topical presentation, such as biobusiness, the federal farm bill, or energy research development. “We then do breakout networking sessions.”

“The uniqueness of the roundtable is bringing together people who usually do not sit at the same table — private industry with academia with producer organizations with farmers — with the goal of renewable energy,” Sparby says.

The roundtable has met quarterly at various sites in St. Paul and St. Cloud since it was launched in September 2006. Its stated goals are:

1) To ensure that Minnesota is a recognized leader in renewable energy knowledge, application and utilization; and

2) To create an implementation platform for moving short and long-term goals forward for Minnesota.

“That first meeting truly was a roundtable discussion, going around and around,” Sparby says. “The feedback was extremely strong that we need to continue this conversation.” The result was long lists of ideas that Sparby and a facilitator organized into five areas: research, public policy, talent development,

infrastructure and economics. (see sidebar, page 9)

A team leader, AURI resource person, and roundtable members were assigned to each focus area. “We looked at what’s going on in these areas in the state: Where are the opportunities? Where are the roadblocks that need to be addressed? Now we need to pull together either projects or initiatives to

address this.”


The Minnesota Legislature thought the roundtable was such a good idea that they made it law. The omnibus agriculture bill, enacted in May 2007, requires AURI to convene a Renewewable Energy Roundtable to meet quarterly and “further the state’s leadership on bioenergy issues.” It is tied to

the state’s 25-25 goal, where Minnesota would produce 25 percent of its own energy by 2025.

The bill also created the NexGen Energy Board to fund bioenergy projects and make policy recommendations over the next two years. The 12-member board includes AURI Executive Director Teresa Spaeth and others representing state agencies, state House and Senate ag and energy committees, ag and natural resource organizations, and higher education.

“The theory behind it is that the roundtable will feed information to NexGen” to help it make decisions, Sparby says. “We’ll be letting them know where the low-hanging fruit is and where the barriers are.”

In the meantime, roundtable members are already acting on issues that dominate group discussion. Talent development is a big concern. “For example, a local ethanol co-op CEO said he has gone through several plant managers in four years,” Sparby says. With a burgeoning renewable fuels industry,

managers and technicians are often lured away by more lucrative offers.

“It was one of the things that jumped out right away; we pulled together (representatives from) Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, corn ethanol, biodiesel, soybean folks and plant CEOs and had a conversation around it.”

“The talent development team recognizes the great work that is currently being done through the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system but also realizes that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg as far as what the need and demand will be in the near future.”

AURI has initiated a biofuels assessment “and some partner dollars went into it,” Sparby says. “AURI will be able to identify future trends that we can target … to assess what the talent needs are for the industry.” The survey should be released in November.

“By convening all these people together, you aren’t going to have people working in their own silos, and you’re hopefully able to save time, eliminate mistakes, share resources, save money, and strengthen projects.” ¦

A basket of energy ideas

The first brainstorming sessions of the Minnesota Renewable Energy Roundtable generated about 1,000 ideas on activities that could advance Minnesota’s bioenergy industry. AURI facilitators categorized the ideas into five areas listed below. Team leaders and AURI resource staff have been assigned to each group, which meet quarterly.

The Roundtable’s next phase is to prioritize ideas, design projects, and find funding and other resources

to accomplish Minnesota’s goal of producing 25 percent of its own energy by 2025.

Applied and basic research

Team leaders: University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities

Focus areas: Researching bioenergy development in areas such as gasification and biofuels, and improving production efficiencies; analyzing biomasses availability, production, conversion issues, and the most appropriate feedstocks for various technologies; looking at environmental challenges associated with biofuel production; developing new bioenergy forms such as cellulosic ethanol; sourcing research funding, especially in high-risk, high-yield areas.

Talent Development

Team leaders: Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and University of Minnesota

Focus areas: Developing educational curriculum in renewable-energy; promoting management, engineering and technology fields; training faculty; raising awareness of bioenergy career and research opportunities; recruiting, training and retaining plant managers and technicians; sharing basic and applied research between U of M and state colleges; designing accelerators to bring researchers and businesses together.

Economics and Financing

Team leader: Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Focus areas: Looking at renewable-energy financing, model development, cost comparisons between various energy forms, cost/profit analysis, access to capital, the economics of energy efficiency and conservation, rural economic development services, business assistance, the state’s role, and economic challenges.

Public policy and awareness

Team leader: Minnesota Department of Commerce

Focus areas: Examining state and federal energy and environmental policies and financial incentives; building awareness and acceptance of biofuels among consumers, the transportation industry, business and political leaders, and others; exploring ways to increase public support for renewable energy.

Infrastructure development

Team leader: University of Minnesota-Crookston

Focus areas: Investigating current and future needs for energy transmission and transportation; looking at densifying feedstocks to reduce transportation costs; examining water availability and storage issues; securing funding for demonstration projects; analyzing costs, efficiencies, and infrastructure demands of large verses small plants.

Organizations represented in the Renewable Energy Roundtable




Alexandria Technical College

American Crystal Sugar Company

American Energy Systems

Asclepian Arts Alliance


Authentic Leadership Action, Inc.

Bemidji State University

Bemidji Bio/BSU Joint Economic Development

Benton County Economic Development

BioSciences & Emerging Technology Committee

Bison Renewable

Blandin Foundation

Bois Forte Development Corporation

British Petroleum

Capitol City Bioscience Corporation


Center for Applied Research & Technology Dev.

Center for Energy and Environment

Central Minnesota Ethanol Coop

Chisago County Board

Clean Energy Resource Team

Community Development of Morrison County

Congressman Collin Peterson’s Office

Duluth Seaway Port Authority

Eagle Bio-Fuels, LLC

Farm Credit Services

Fergus Falls Economic Improvement Commission

Great River Energy

Hubert H. Humphrey State & Local Policy Program

Hunt Utilities Group, LLC

Initiative Foundation

Iron Range Resources

LifeScience Alley

McKnight Foundation

Midwest Ag Energy Network

Minnesota Barley Growers Assoc.

Minnesota Corn Growers Assoc.

Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council

Minnesota Crop Production Retailers

Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Minnesota Department of Commerce

MN Department of Employment & Economic Development

Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation

Minnesota Farmers Union

Minnesota Forest Resources Council

Minnesota House of Representatives

Minnesota Milk Producers Association

Minnesota Pork Producers

Minnesota Senate

Minnesota Small Business Development Center

Minnesota Soybean Growers Assoc.

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities

Minnesota State Community and Technical College

Minnesota State University Mankato

Minnesota State University Moorhead

Minnesota Technology, Inc.


Minnesota Wheat Research & Promotion Council

MN West Community & Technical College

Natural Resources Research Institute

Northwest Technical College

Red Dragon Solutions

Redwood Area Development Corporation

Russell & Herder Advertising & Public Relations

6Solutions, LLC

Sandia National Laboratories

Southwest Initiative Foundation

Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council

Southwest Minnesota State University

The BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota

Umore Park

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s Office

University of Minnesota

U of M Center for Diesel Research

U of M – Crookston

U of M Forest Resources

Upper Midwest Hydrogen Initiative

USDA Farm Service Agency

USDA Rural Development – Albert Lea office

USDA Rural Development – State Office

West Central Initiative

West Granite Falls

White Earth Reservation


Xcel Energy