For almost three years, hundreds of Minnesotans have come together to advance our renewable energy future.

The Minnesota Renewable Energy Roundtable has involved more than 500 individuals from 150 organizations, including private industry, utilities, higher education, state government, nonprofits and farm groups. They have a common purpose — to make Minnesota the national leader in renewable-energy knowledge and use.

“The Roundtable brings diverse folks together on a regular basis,” says Ron Johnson, trade development director for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we need to take the wheel and put it on a new wagon. The RER makes sure we are working to build the best new wagon.” Bob McLean, chief operating officer of Hunt Utilities Group in Pine River is a regular Roundtable participant who focuses on public policy and awareness. “I’ve been impressed with the level of participation from a broad spectrum of individuals. The people who are coming are very engaged in the issues.”

That engagement goes beyond networking and attending quarterly meetings. Between sessions, participants get together for discussions and activities.

“We use the quarterly meetings to report on the things we’ve been doing since the last time we got together,” says Carol Anderson, Morrison County economic developer and regular Roundtable participant.

The Roundtable’s first gathering in the fall 2006 identified five priority areas: basic and applied research, public policy and awareness, infrastructure, economics and financing and talent development. Action teams were launched in each area.

The talent development team, for example, has worked toward developing K-12 curriculum, a biofuels-workforce needs assessment and post-secondary core curricula with certificate programs in solar, ethanol, biodiesel and wind energy that should be complete in 2010.

Other teams are creating a directory of renewable-energy finance tools and resources, a renewable-energy web portal and numerous policy change recommendations, resulting from member input. One Web site under development will link potential projects to economic developers who will in turn connect with possible funding sources for the project.

“Legislators and other leaders have taken suggestions to heart and have gotten things done,” McLean says. “These sessions have been as productive as any forum I’ve seen.”

“The work of the Roundtable doesn’t stop once the sessions are done,” says Teresa Spaeth, executive director of AURI, which facilitates Roundtable activities. “Many of the participants continue to communicate, collaborate and develop actions long after the meetings are done. We stress nearly every time we’re together that this is not a spectator sport.”

“With the economy in dire straits,” Johnson says, “we need to keep ourselves, our leaders and the public focused on long-term goals.”

Biofuels: bridge or dead end?

One of the nation’s top thinkers advocates interdependent approach

Editor’s note: Peter Senge, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology senior lecturer, spoke to more than 200 participants in the Renewable Energy Roundtable February 9 in St. Paul. The author and renowned business thinker told the audience that today’s confluence of world economic, environmental and social conditions is unique in our history. Our increasing interdependence requires working collaboratively on a sustainable future that includes biofuels. Following are excerpts from his blog, reflecting on Minnesota’s biofuels development and controversy.

By Peter Senge

Excerpts from February 11, 2009 blog

I spoke to the Minnesota Renewable Energy Roundtable Monday, which turned out to provide a fascinating glimpse into the dynamic and controversial world of emerging energy options in America. In the audience were business leaders as well as several members of the State Senate, including the Speaker, as well as his predecessor. Many are right in the middle of the increasingly heated debate about ethanol in our energy future.

More cars in Minnesota run on E85 blends including ethanol than in the rest of the country combined. This has created jobs and a resurgent agriculture industry. It has also enabled farmers to step forward as contributing to energy security for a country caught in the dilemmas of dependence on oil imports on the one hand and fighting oil financed terrorists on the other.

But recently, the agriculture ethanol producers have come under a lot of heat from academic studies that say that corn-based ethanol is worse than gasoline from a CO2 viewpoint. This public debate has been fueled, not surprisingly, by media seemingly more interested in selling newspapers and airtime than helping in the transition to a long-term sustainable energy system.

At a small lunch after my talk, the head of the one of the largest growers’ associations asked, “With all the heat we are taking today, is it possible to say that biofuels are a part of a sustainable energy picture?”

I responded that the answer was definitely, “Yes,” from my perspective. But I told him that food-crop-based fuels must be seen as a bridge to a longer-term vision of biofuels that significantly reduce the total carbon footprint of our energy system, and that “They needed to be part of building that bridge, rather than just defending what they are doing today.” . . . .

I left Minnesota thinking that what we need first of all is a different political climate, one that supports learning and minimizes finger pointing. Creating healthy rural economies is a priority around the world. If this can include new sources of energy that create entrepreneurial opportunity and jobs while restoring topsoil and healthy water use this can be a win for all. Energy security will surely be an increasingly central issue as well. But most of all, in my judgment, dramatically accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels and dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of our economies is urgent.

We need to stop throwing rocks at farmers converting corn to biofuels and start all working together to agree on where we want to be in 20 years. In other words, can we agree on what a truly environmentally sound energy system would look like? This is a crucial strategic task — teaching this agreement — that governments, NGOs and businesses alike must assume responsibility. Then, we could reasonably expect every player in what will be an increasingly diverse and complex field of energy producers, distributors and customers to be able to answer the simple question, “What part of the bridge are you building?” ■

Peter Senge, named one of the country’s 20 most influential business thinkers by the Wall Street Journal in 2008, spoke to more than 200 participants in the Renewable Energy Roundtable in February. His latest book is “The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World.” — Peter Senge Biofuels: bridge or dead end? One of the nation’s top business thinkers advocates interdependent approach Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Roundtable Read Peter Senge’s blog at: http://blogs.solonline.org/users/psenge/