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    Tilting at Wind Energy

    Clean power production in the Great North

    Everyday wind energy grows and expands. Everybody wants in, witness Oklahoma's recent pitch in Europe, but only a few are going to be real players. Right now Texas and Minnesota/South Dakota appear to have to have a head start with two world leading efforts: T. Boone Pickins' giant planned West Texas wind farm - weighing in at 4,000 MW capacity, and the even bigger 5,050MW British Petroleum Titan project in South Dakota.

    I had the opportunity to watch the development of a wind energy industry cluster in Minnesota first hand. Driving back and forth between Minneapolis-Saint Paul, where I lived for many years, and eastern South Dakota, where relatives lived, I saw the emergence of Lake Benton, Minnesota, as the "Original Wind Power Capital of the Midwest." (CNN did a story on Lake Benton and midwest wind energy efforts back in 2000.)

    Starting with a few multi-story wind turbines on farmland in the 1990s, Lake Benton plans to have 200 such wind mills working when all is said and done. The area around Lake Benton, pop. 700, is called Buffalo Ridge and is mostly farmland. What makes wind energy popular among the locals, primarily farmers, is that by giving over a small fraction of their land to wind harvesting, they can generate about $2,000 per wind mill. (Sidenote: Interestingly, John Deere set up a wind power division recently.)

    Lake Benton was one of the first areas in Minnesota to get wind energy fever. And big visions have emerged since. The North Star state wants to become a net exporter of wind-derived electricity by 2030. The state look to rally efforts to become the "Saudi Arabia" of wind energy. It even had a trade group called Energy Alley. (Energy Alley has since been aborbed into a larger initiative called the Minnesota Environmental Initiative.) The name of this group harkened back to Medical Alley, the association for Minnesota's most successful industry cluster--medical devices. (Medical Alley has since changed its name to LifeScience Alley, after merging with MNBio, the trades association for local biotech companies.)

    Minnesota, primarily the Twin Cities, has one of the most developed industry clusters in the country, apart from Silicon Valley for information technology and New York for financial services, thanks to major players, like Medtronic, BostonScientific, St. Jude Medical, and Guidant. In fact, Michael Porter, strategy guru from Harvard University, used Minnesota's device cluster as an example when introducing the concept of industry clusters back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Proponents of developing a renewable energy industry in Minnesota, therefore, had an excellent template to follow.

    Although other regions of the country are better known for their connections to energy, primarily Houston, Texas, Minnesota does have some potential. In addition to wind energy in places like Lake Benton, the state's economy is strongly tied to agriculture, especially corn and soy beans. (It's no coincidence that agribusiness giant Cargill, one of the largest privately owned companies in the world is based in a Minneapolis suburb.)

    Corn is useful for providing biomass-based fuels like ethanol, another renewable energy source. Before the recent financial meltdown, over in Western Minnesota and Eastern South Dakota, about an hour from Lake Benton, extensive development was taking place in the ethanol fuel industry via companies like VeraSun Energy and Fagen Inc. Also thanks to a joint venture between Cargill and Dow, biotechnology is being used to create plastic out of corn. (Aside: I own a corn-based plastic blanket, and it works just fine.)

    Another reason renewable energy may succeed in Minnesota, a primarily democrat state, is that politically speaking everybody can get behind clean/green energy. Along those lines, the University of Minnesota has launched the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) to coordinate research efforts into alternative energy technology. (BTW, I don't know if the allusion to Bob Marley is intentional here, but we are talking about a bunch of university students.)

    Minnesota is hoping that with wind, ethanol, and, possibly, hydrogen technologies, the next big thing for the state, could be the energy that will power America in the future. [P.S. The Economist recently annointed North Dakota (Minnesota's and South Dakota's neighbor) with the appellation of "energy producer."] .:.


    Power to the People

    Energizing the 21st century grid

    U.S. cities are already burning plenty of midnight oil--showing up as some of the most widely illuminated places on Earth. But that output is only bound to intensify over the coming decades.

    Over the next 30+ years, the population of the U.S. is expected to increase by over 100 million persons. (By comparison, Europe and Japan will lose 15 million people.) Not coincidentally, the majority of that population growth (~66%) will be in the 20 megapolitan areas identified by Dr. Robert Lang.

    According to International Energy Agency the U.S. electrical grid generated about 4,148 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2004. By 2030, total U.S. output will rise more than 42% to 5,913 TWh. That's a lot of juice.

    The Wall Street Journal ran an article on March 12, 2007, describing how renewable energy, specifically wind energy, will play into that. The newspaper ran the following breakdown:

    Energy Source .....2004 .....2030
    Coal .....50% .....53%
    Nuclear .....20% ..... 16%
    Gas ..... 18% ..... 16%
    Hyrdo .....7% ..... 5%
    Oil .....3% ..... 2%
    Renewable .....2% (14% wind) .....8% (44% wind)

    See that last line. That's a huge increase in the amount of wind energy generation capacity over the next two and half decades. Big energy companies are looking to get in on this surge, and wind energy is becoming big business, witness the American Wind Energy Association in D.C. .:.

    Brights Lights, Big Cities

    Light pollution and earthbound constellations

    Growing up in northern San Diego county, I had the unique opportunity to be only 30 minutes from the Pacific Ocean and 60 minutes from Mt. Palomar. For my money, I preferred treks up the 5,600 foot peak more than to the beach. One reason was the Mt. Palomar Observatory, which was once the largest telescope in the world and is still used today to track down objects in outer space.

    Proximity to the Palomar Observatory was good for me, it was bad for astronomers. Widespread light pollution from nearby growing cities in San Diego county reduced the ability of Palomar to capture as crisp as pictures as it might have otherwise. It's a problem facing telescopes all over the world.

    Although that stray city light obfuscates views of the heavens, it has proved useful in illuminating (no pun intended) things down here on Earth. Just as starlight is a telltale of the powerful thermonuclear engines at work inside stellar bodies, so Earth-observing scientists at NASA found that
    shining lights from Earth gives clues about the engines driving the world's economy. They found that city lights very good indicators of urbanization.

    We're not talking about population, mind you. China and India combined have ten times the number of citizens as the U.S., but those countries are far dimmer at night thanks to fewer modern, electrified cities. When analyzing what I'll call "ground constellations" across the U.S., the scientists found great concentrations of light.

    The brightest groupings came from those (pesky) cities that leave their lights on all night long. And it became quite evident that cities formed clusters that didn't fit neatly into city, county, state or national boundaries. The U.S. Census has no official term to describe large urban complexes beyond combined statistical areas, consisting of metropolitan areas that are economically interlinked, and, consequently, no way of measuring them. Clearly there was something that needed measurement, however.

    These mega cities were not limited to just the U.S. There appeared to be as many as 20 supersized metropoli across the face of the planet. Obeservers of census data also were discovering evidence for such uber-urban areas.
    Robert Lang, a professor at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, explains that as far back as the 1960s, Jean Gottman pointed out the existance of a "megapolitan" centered on New York City and surrounding metros in the Northeast. Although distinct cities, they could also be thought of as a single mega city.

    Lang decided to use the same term to describe the supercities he discovered through his own research, which he encountered working through Census data from the ground up. He initially discussed 10 megapolitans in the U.S., but has since refined his list to 20. He's even written a book on the subject, due out the summer of 2007. Alternatively, the America 2050 initiative has adopted its own criteria to describe America's megas, based on the
    Regional Planning Association's (RPA) defintions. It has ten, very similar to, if not the same as, Lang's original list. The two systems are now pretty much integrated, with Lang's 20 megapolitans forming the constituents of the RPA's 10 mega regions.

    The lone exception may be that the RPA includes Minneapolis-Saint Paul as part of the Great Lakes mega region, and Lang does not. Having lived in the Twin Cities for many years, I believe that they do indeed belong to a Great Lakes mega. Chicago represents the hub of the Midwest. In fact, the state of Minnesota's Department of Transportation studied air cargo transport (important for high-value manufacturers such as the medical device makers that dominate the Twin Cities business landscape). They found that 90% of air cargo in the region is shipped to Chicago's O'Hare Airport, rather than from MSP International.

    This concept of megapolitans and mega regions is taking off. There's an increasing number of organizations looking into "megas" to see how to leverage them to enhance the economic productivity and performance of local areas. .:.


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