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Move to renewable energy offers opportunities for rural areas

Milan's connections to a renewable energy economy can be seen at the local elevator, where all but 70,000 bushels of the 2.1 million bushels of corn handled there in the past year was sold to ethanol producers in the region. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

MILAN -- A week ago Lois Quam was in the United Arab Emirates, where she represented Piper Jaffray & Company of Minneapolis as oil producing states in the Middle East looked at how to invest their petroleum profits in what many see as the future: renewable energy.

Thursday she was in Milan, where many want to make the community and region a leader in that future.

"We stand on the brink of a very exciting time in the world," Quam told an audience in the basement of the geothermal-heated Kviteseid Lutheran Church.

Quam, who joined Piper Jaffray as managing director of alternative investments in energy and clean technology in 2007, had previously been ranked by Fortune magazine as one of the 50 most powerful women in the country in her role as CEO of Ovations, United Health Group. A Lutheran minister's daughter, Quam said her change of focus to alternative energy was inspired by Will Steger's call for action to reduce global climate change.

Her message to Milan is that changes as profound as those brought about by the industrial revolution are in the making. The interest in developing renewable energy sources to replace dwindling fossil fuel supplies and reduce carbon dioxide emissions is worldwide, Quam said.

She believes the change to a renewable-based energy economy will be driven by rural areas. They have the physical assets, such as wind and farm-raised biomass. Thanks to the Internet and its ability to shrink distance, rural areas also have an equal footing when it comes to conducting business.

"Distance is no longer the most important thing in that," she said. "Point of view matters."

In that, rural areas might just have the real advantage. She predicts that many of the businesses that succeed in creating a new, "green" economy will be small.

Just like in the early days of the industrial revolution, many of the largest and seemingly successful companies are the most resistant to the change that is coming, according to Quam.

"It's a whole lot harder to change an existing company than to start anew," she said.

There are a host of new, startup companies looking to tap the rural area's biomass, wind and solar resources, according to Doug Cameron, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist now with Piper Jaffray Investments.

Cameron said he also sees a growing interest in rebuilding America's chemical industry by replacing oil with biobased materials raised on farms.

"Minnesota has great potential," he said. "It could be a leader for biomass worldwide."

Cameron and Quam said investors are interested in the state's growing renewable energy sector, but also cautioned that capital is difficult to attract for any venture in the current economy.

"It is a very difficult time in the financial markets right now to do this, but that will change," said Quam. "Good companies will find ways to get things done."

She and Cameron encouraged Milan and this region to look toward President Obama's economic stimulus plan for the initial capital to launch projects.

Quam, who was once honored as the state's leading Norwegian-American, also encouraged Milan to exploit its well-known connections to Norway. The Scandinavian country "gets it" when it comes to renewable energy, and has invested its oil wealth to become one of the world's leaders in renewable energy, she said.