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Sun, wind, algae: Future data center power sources?

Researchers and policymakers gathered at E3 2008 to share progress in the development of renewable energy sources including wind, solar and biofuels

By , Network World
November 25, 2008 11:56 AM ET

Network World - ST. PAUL, MINN. -- The potential for wind power in the upper Midwest United States has led some to dub the region the "Saudi Arabia of wind." But tapping that potential isn't easy. In particular, the difficulty of integrating wind power into utility companies' transmission grids is hampering adoption.

Experts from around the globe gathered last week in St. Paul, Minn., to discuss ways to expand wind power, along with other renewable energy topics, such as the latest in photovoltaic technology and the potential for producing biofuels from algae.

"The global impact of our energy procurement and utilization choices on our environment is undisputed. For us, perhaps the most compelling challenge is to develop and deliver sustainable energy systems to the global marketplace," said Dick Hemmingsen, director of the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) at the University of Minnesota.

Hemmingsen addressed 700 attendees at E3 2008, a conference focused on energy, the economy and environmental issues, and he stressed the need for collaboration. "These developments cannot occur in a local vacuum," Hemmingsen said. "Within our academic institutions it's critical that researchers work in an interdisciplinary manner, integrating the work of agronomists, biologists, chemists, engineers and economists."

In addition, the academic community needs to be in tune with the business community, Hemmingsen said. "It means working to ensure that the needs and opportunities of the business sector are helping to focus the scientific agenda, and that the ideas and possibilities being developed by the academics are helping to inform the business opportunities."

Don't let the economy stop you

The E3 event drew speakers and exhibitors from private industry, government, nonprofit and education institutions, who shared ideas about new market opportunities and government policies that could accelerate the use of renewable energy sources and decrease our dependence on nuclear and fossil fuels.

A difficult economy is no reason to pull back on investments in renewable energy sources, said keynote speaker Gary Doer, who is premier of the Canadian province of Manitoba. In the nine years since Doer was first elected Manitoba's premier, the province climbed from 9th place to 1st place for energy efficiency among Canadian provinces. The region has boosted its hydroelectric power and plans are in place to deploy more wind farms and explore greater use of solar and geothermal energy sources. Long-term goals are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the province to a level that's 6% below 1990 GHGs.

"All of us should be very committed to not standing still, even with these economic challenges. The jurisdictions that stand still, that stand in the middle of the road, are going to get run over when we inevitably come out of this. Those who don't invest in education, training and skills development are not going to be able to compete with other economies," Doer said. "We have to continue to make the argument that the costs of doing nothing are much greater than anybody has ever anticipated."

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