In fall 2002, a small group of faculty and administrators at the University of Minnesota began to discuss the need for a coordinating mechanism to raise the profile of renewable energy research and development at the university and across the Midwest. These discussions soon merged with those of government representatives who shared a similar goal.
By early 2003, the decision was made to form the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE). A significant strategic choice was to ensure that the developing initiative be institution-wide, and not tied directly to a single college or unit. During that year’s state legislative session, the Minnesota Legislature directed portions of the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund and Conservation Improvement Program to IREE to support a broad range renewable energy research and demonstration technologies. At the same time, University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks designated the environment and renewable energy as an institutional priority.
With the initial influx of funding, IREE strategically chose to focus programmatic investments on “seed grant” opportunities, with the intent of drawing a broad cadre of University faculty expertise to pursue scholarly activities related to renewable energy. In late 2004, IREE began to expand the focus to include large, multi-year research projects, and to utilize these state-authorized funds to significantly leverage extramural funding. IREE established a strategic process to better target funding resources and to position the U of M and the state as national leaders in renewable energy. More than 25 multidisciplinary teams began utilizing IREE funds to conduct research and develop demonstration projects.
Since then, IREE has become a central part of the region’s renewable energy economy, mobilizing more than 600 university experts around one vital mission: “to promote statewide economic development; sustainable, healthy and diverse ecosystems; and national energy security through development of bio-based and other renewable resources and processes.”
In 2007, the Minnesota Legislature chose to continue funding for IREE. Signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the legislation increased support to $5 million annually (beginning in 2009), and expanded IREE’s focus to include energy and products from biomass, wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, microorganisms and other renewable resources.
Another 2007 milestone was the administrative decision to place IREE under the direction of the developing U of M’s Institute on the Environment (IonE). As the IonE’s signature program, IREE could build on a history of accomplishments to help achieve the primary goals of the IonE: “discovering new solutions to Earth’s most pressing environmental problems through cutting-edge research, world-class leadership development and innovative partnerships.”
In the ensuing years, IREE announced three rounds of new investments to help launch early-stage, high-potential projects in emerging fields of renewable energy. The selected projects demonstrate a high degree of innovation; synergy with the U of M’s and the state’s competitive advantages; a potential contribution to the nation’s renewable energy goals; and a clear strategy for attracting external funding support. In addition to our internal funding mechanisms, IREE has provided matching funds for a wide array of external research funding opportunities. IREE has invested in over 200 research projects to advance this critical mission. To date, IREE investments have leveraged nearly $100 million in additional renewable energy research support to the state of Minnesota. With IREE support, a community of over 600 University of Minnesota scholars has been actively engaged in IREE-sponsored research, including over 70 graduate students whose theses have been completed as a result of their participation in IREE-supported projects. These efforts have resulted in over 200 partnerships with business, industry, state and federal agencies, national labs, and higher education institutions. In addition to these programmatic investments, IREE sponsored a significant outreach program, including the annual E-3 conference.
In the 2012 Legislative session, the decision was made to discontinue direct funding to IREE from the Renewable Energy Development Fund to support these innovative research and demonstration programs. Subsequently the decision was made by the University to sunset the IREE program. IREE completed a final round of investments in November, 2012.