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Obama supporters: Candidate on right side of renewables

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Minnesota supporters of presidential candidate Barack Obama claim their candidate alone is most capable of ensuring that on-going renewable energy initiatives so important to rural areas are not compromised and allowed to flourish.

The Obama Heartland for Change Tour made a brief stop at the University of Minnesota, Morris on Monday as part of a state-wide tour of the state this week.

The Morris stop focused on renewable and sustainable energy issues, and the contingent's belief that Obama's plans are more in tune with the area's moves to develop them.

The panel included Assistant Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, former Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Jim Nichols, former State Director of USDA Rural Development Gary DeCramer, and UMM Vice Chancellor for Finance and Facilities Lowell Rasmussen.

DeCramer said the recently passed Farm Bill contains support for renewable energy initiatives and that Obama is on the right side of those efforts. Republicans tried to veto the measures.

"The important thing now is that we have an administration that carries through," DeCramer said.

DeCramer said the federal government, through agencies like Rural Development, can positively affect rural energy projects but that that support must be carefully directed.

"There's a strong role for the federal government in promoting rural development," DeCramer said. "But if you come in dangling a bag of money and distribute it mostly to corporate interests, you lose that sense of connection with local people."

Nichols, a UMM alum, said rural America is "the future of energy in this country."

A life-long farmer, Nichols called Republican presidential candidate John McCain "a clone" of President George Bush when it comes to renewable and bioenergy, and that Republican National Convention rhetoric convinced him that the party is now friend to new energy technologies. He encouraged students to get involved.

"If you're not part of this change, it's not going to be a very bright future," Nichols said. "(The Republicans) will overturn what we've done in this state (and) stop the advance in the nation."

Rasmussen touted UMM's many achievements in developing and using renewable energy systems.

"A lot of places talk about renewable energy," he said. "Morris is doing it."

Wind power and bio-energy are already powering, heating and cooling much of the UMM campus, and the university, its students, the West Central Research and Outreach Center and the ARS Soils Lab are partners in a team effort to further renewable energy ambitions.

"We're a national leader and we hope to continue to push that envelope," Rasmussen said.

In response to a question about nuclear energy, Nichols said he's not opposed to nuclear power options, but said the enormity of the cost associated with building and operating plants mean it can be only part of the energy solution.

"If you want to move into some very expensive energy, nuclear is the way to go," he said.

And cost is only part of the issue with nuclear energy, Clark said. France is an example of a country "doing creative things" with nuclear energy, but that security issues regarding the protection of the plants makes it a less-attractive option compared to wind and bioenergy, she said.

Conservation was raised by another audience member, and the panelists assured him that it, too, was a major part of Obama's energy plans.

Emergency energy rebates also were mentioned as a way to help people, especially the elderly with fixed incomes, pay for heating costs when the weather turns cold.

Clark advocated more partnerships like those underway at UMM, citing as an example the fact that many wind turbines currently in use in the U.S. are manufactured overseas.

"We need to build them here," she said. "It's a lot cheaper."