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Minnesota has potential future success in renewable energy

BEMIDJI - Representatives from across the renewable energy industry in Minnesota gathered Tuesday in Bemidji.

The Minnesota Renewable Energy Roundtable met at the Sanford Center to discuss the future of renewable energy in rural areas.

LeAnn Oliver, senior advisor for clean energy and rural development with the U.S. Department of Energy, spoke about Minnesota's potential for renewable energy.

"We've played a significant role in working with manufacturers and developers to come up with new ways to use renewable energy," Oliver said.

Minnesota has seen a lot of use of solar energy, Oliver said.

"Solar energy has been very successful here," Oliver said. "Biomass has also been a popular source of renewable energy in Minnesota."

Oliver said Minnesota also has potential to be successful with geothermal energy.

"There are a lot of opportunities here," Oliver said. "There's continually invention of new materials."

A panel comprised of local and state, private and public, voices in the renewable energy industry answered audience members' questions on what to do with the future of the industry.

"You need to have access to resources," Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, said. "It's the economic developer's job to help you access those resources and make your job easier."

Hengel's advice for renewable energy project developers is to find someone who cares about their projects as much as they do.

"When I think about successful projects, you need to have a vision of a need and someone crazy enough to make the risk happen," Hengel said.

Bob McLean, general manager of Hunt Utilities Group, offered advice for small business owners.

"Keep up with the changing landscape by surrounding yourself with the right people," McLean said. "Change is a critical element. Make yourself feel a little uncomfortable."

There are countless jobs on various levels in the renewable energy industry, but colleges don't always provide the necessary training, Paul Moe, director of Minnesota Jobs Skills Partnership, said.

"One method to overcome this problem is the Minnesota Jobs Skills Partnership program," Moe said. "It tries to provide this training that colleges can't. This is the way to build training for the new innovations."

From the economic development perspective, there's a transition happening, Hengel said.

"We're focused on finding talent," Hengel said. "How do you create the right talent? ... It's not just the school district's issue or the university's issue. We all have to think it's an issue."

McLean said part of the solution is teaching children how to learn and to love to learn.

"My son is a sophomore in college, and sometimes I wonder whether the skills he's learning are still going to be relevant 10-15 years down the road," McLean said. "We need to draw an emphasis on creativity and communication so these skills will help transform a child as things change."