Race is on for $2 million in green energy grant moneyby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Friday is the deadline for businesses to apply for stimulus-funded grants designed to help spur job creation and the development of green energy.
The Renewable Energy Grant program is designed to create manufacturing jobs right away so the money is not for research. State officials hope it will make Minnesota a leader in green energy production.
The Minnesota Office of Energy Security will award grants to no more than six projects. The office says it's expecting 39 applications, but it's not commenting beyond that citing competitive concerns.
Minnesota Public Radio News tracked down a few companies chasing the money to find out why they want the green energy grants.
The Bloomington-based company tenKsolar Inc. is hoping to win a grant. A couple of years ago tenKsolar didn't exist. Now it claims technology that connects solar cells in a way that dramatically increases their ability to generate electricity.
This fall tenKsolar began filling orders. They anticipate sales this year of about $1 million but are planning for much bigger numbers in 2010.
Garrick Villaume, the company's Vice President of Operations, says with several hundred thousand economic stimulus dollars, tenKsolar could quickly speed up production.
"We think we have a window of opportunity here," Villaume said."We don't know how long it will be before other challengers reach the same conclusion that we have and so we need to hit that window very, very quickly so that we can capitalize on it."
Villaume says tenKsolar's way of integrating solar cells could render conventional solar electric panels obsolete.
Cells on standard panels can produce no more energy than the weakest cell on a panel. Villaume says tenKsolar panels are wired so that the weakest cell can not drag down the rest.
"They're supportive of each one works together with the other as opposed to being critical or links in a chain anyone of which is broken the entire chain is no longer useful," Villaume said.
The company has less than two dozen full-time employees but is eager to expand. Its panels are hand assembled in same room in which research takes place.
Plans call for new manufacturing space, expensive assembly equipment and almost 100 more full-time employees over the next two years.
Dick Hemmingsen, director of the University of Minnesota's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, says the grants could provide a real boost to alternative energy efforts in Minnesota.
Hemmingsen says even a few hundred thousand dollars can make an enormous difference.
"At those early stages beyond the concept, this additional resources are just critical for these start up companies," Hemmingsen said.
Energy Harvest Group in St. Paul has an empty space ready and waiting for production lines and hopes to receive $700,000 in grant money.
But instead of creating energy, the company is all about storing power, according to Peter Treacy, Energy Harvest Group's Chief Operating officer.
"Energy storage is really the missing link that will help renewables take off," Treacy said.
Treacy says his company's technology can make a multitude of green energy projects much more practical by efficiently storing lots of energy for later use, when say the wind is not blowing or its dark outside.
Treacy pointed out an iCeL 714 battery, which looks like a brick is a battery in heavy-duty white rectangular box.
It's about about 1 1/2 feet long and less than a foot wide. The lithium technology that makes it capable of storing a lot more energy in a lot smaller space is nothing new.
What's cutting edge, says Treacy, is the way Energy Harvest Group's cells store and use power.
"Our sweet spot is essentially in the compound interconnect in the way we connect the batteries themselves," Treacy said. "The batteries are just small cells that are inside here. But our unique piece is actually the communications, the smart boards, the wrapping around it to manage that."
Treacy says he'll hire at least 40 people to assemble battery cells if Energy Harvest Group gets the grant.
The Minnesota Office of Energy Security plans to notify the winners of the emerging renewable grants by the end of January.
- Morning Edition, 12/18/2009, 7:25 a.m.