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Summit begins discussion of U.S. energy problem

WILLMAR -- If adults don't take steps to solve America's looming energy and environmental problems for themselves, they should do it for people like 11-year-old Laura Norling of Willmar.

"It is in times like these that we as Americans again will reach out to each other and pursue real and unbiased solutions,'' she told about 80 people attending an energy summit Tuesday in Willmar.

The day-long summit was sponsored by Citizens Energy Plan, a grassroots organization that's leading a process of developing and presenting a national energy plan to Congress in 2010. The group brought the region's most knowledgeable speakers on energy topics to the summit at the Willmar Conference Center.

"I ask for my generation and future generations ... Get involved, create small tipping points by connecting people, companies, organizations and communities through (Citizens Energy Plan),'' she said. "I am an American. I believe we can do the impossible.''

Norling's message touched Joe Shuster, 76, of New Prague, a chemical engineer, author, high-tech energy entrepreneur and past adviser to Congress who has laid out a roadmap for energy independence by 2040.

Shuster predicts world population growth and increasing energy demand will exhaust world conventional oil reserves in 28 years, use up all natural gas supplies in 47 years and all coal in 125 years. He believes the lack of solutions to the country's energy problems will put the United States and other nations at an almost "doom's day risk.''

"I think the most important thing that this conference provides is getting people informed,'' Shuster said. "I think we all have to get informed if we're going to be part of effecting change. I think we're going to have to tell our leaders where we want them to lead us so they can lead us there.''

Shuster said there are "all kinds of sources of energy'' that the country will have to use. Those include the development of fast neutron reactors, which can extract energy from all types of uranium, including depleted uranium which is otherwise waste from enrichment.

"I've been interested in energy since 1973,'' he said. "It's not going to affect my life much, but I'm really worried about our grandchildren. If we don't fix this problem, they're going to end up in a world in total chaos with very little possibility of living the good life as we know it. If we run out of energy, you'll be in a world of hurt.''

To pay for development of new energy sources, Shuster proposes placing a temporary energy surcharge on current fuels. He said the payback will be almost double.

"Citizens Energy Plan is doing a magnificent thing in educating people,'' Shuster said. "I'm impressed Willmar is hosting this meeting.''

Vidar Lee Byberg of Willmar, Citizens Energy Plan president, said grassroots organizing is good, but he urged his listeners to connect with other organizations, citizens and groups to support a broad, comprehensive energy plan.

Those connections include the city of Elk River, where Vance Zehringer, general manager of Elk River Municipal Utilities, said his city has set targets to reduce energy, water and fuel usage and waste from 10 percent to 25 percent over the next five years.

In attendance Tuesday were representatives of rural electric cooperatives, municipal utilities, businesses and environmental groups. Among those were Patrick Moore, executive director of Clean Up our River Environment of Montevideo, and CURE energy consultant Duane Ninneman.

Moore applauded the effort to create dialogue on energy and addressing the issues by bringing people together in forums like this.

"It's important to get everybody on the same page, and we hope going forward from this event there will be more structured one-on-one dialogues between groups like CURE and the rural electric co-ops and the municipal utilities and the energy producers and farmers,'' he said.

Moore recommended the region focus on developing wind, solar and other renewable energy sources "because we think it's not only going to be better for the environment, but it would be good for economic development.''

Ninneman said sustainability of the local economy should be central to the discussion.

"The dialogue about national energy policy is well under way and to ramp up to influence that discussion I think really behooves us to have a clear understanding of where that policy making is heading now,'' he said.

Tim Mergen, general manager of Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association in Litchfield, said everybody won't agree on everything, but he said it's important to keep talking.

"No question it's a big dream. I give them credit for putting it together,'' he said.