Xcel Energy has awarded $5.5 million to the Minnesota Energy Center to encourage research related to electricity and to help train a workforce for the future.

The center is one of eight established a few years ago by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, a system which includes 30 community and technical colleges and seven universities. MnSCU is the largest higher education network in Minnesota, with more than 400,000 full and part time students.

The energy center plans to offer 14 research and development grants focused on renewable energy to its member institutions. Eligible submissions must focus on renewable technologies that do not displace electricity, such as solar thermal or demand side management.

The Xcel grants come from the Renewable Development Fund, which has provides grants focused on renewable energy to universities, nonprofits, commercial businesses, according to the company’s website.

The fund is supported by money the utility sets aside for the program as part of a state law that allows it to store spent fuel in dry casks at the state’s two nuclear facilities in return for managing and executing the development fund.

Bruce Peterson, director of the energy center, said the Xcel money will go toward promoting renewable energy research with the MnSCU system.

While the primary engine of research in the state has been traditionally the University of Minnesota system, he said, MnSCU believes “there is a lot of potential for research at both the state universities and two-year colleges,” Peterson said.

The research component is a bit different than what MnSCU has been doing in the energy field. Many of the campuses have focused on training technicians for jobs in wind, solar, nuclear and biofuel industries, he said.

Part of that involvement works to increase the diversity of the utility workforce, which is more than 85 percent white, and aging, Peterson said.  “It’s a big challenge and we’re working to attract more minorities into the industry,” he said.

The $5.5 million grant is the largest influx of money the energy center has ever received. The first round of awards will be in August. Schools within the system can ask for up to $750,000 for projects and so far 11 have responded with applications.

“It’s about what we expect it to be in the first round, maybe more than we expected,” said Peterson, who is also executive dean of academic initiatives at St. Cloud Technical & Community College.

The early proposals asked for support for research into wind, solar and anaerobic digestion. It’s likely six will be chosen for the first round after review by the energy center and a merit review from industry experts, Peterson said.

Those who don’t make the cut are invited to re-apply. MnSCU sees great opportunity in renewable energy as the nation’s energy infrastructure swiftly changes.

“One of the primary things we’re looking at in the Minnesota Energy Center is creating access and opportunities as we see more renewable energy across the energy spectrum,” he said. “There’s a whole dynamic of changing going on.”

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.