In Great Lakes, Testing and Uncertainty on Renewables

The fourth most popular news item generated by the national news desk of the New York Times yesterday was a story about the potential to turn common algae into a commercially viable energy source. The story remains the 9th most frequently emailed as of this posting.

Guess where the report originates? Not at some high tech startup in Silicon Valley. Not in a fancy research center at MIT or the Department of Energy. But rather in Roger Ruan's laboratory at the University of Minnesota.

The story is the latest to illustrate how America, in many ways, is looking to the greater Great Lakes region - with its long history of research, innovation, and hard work - for leadership to advance the nation's renewable energy strategy and help solve the converging problems of oil dependency, climate change, and technological stagnation.

So, too, does the news now sweeping the country that Congress has reached agreement on a policy requiring automakers to pursue modest increases fuel efficiency standards.

Or, as the Detroit Free Press put it, "the deal negotiated will force (emphasis added) U.S. automakers to make a 40 percent improvement in their vehicles' mileage to 35 miles per gallon by 2020."

And therein lies a major challenge. America more and more is pushing to enlist the ingenuity of Heartland states like Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in the energy innovation campaign. But the question is whether the region's traditional and entrenched leadership from business, politics, and the media is really truly ready and willing to fully heed the call and step up to the challenge.

Or must they be "forced" into meaningul action? Despite the mounting number of stories that reveal an inspiring - and profitable - 21st century change in thinking about wind turbines, mpg's, or even algae, there always seems to be something that brings the whole conversation crashing back down into the comfort zone of 20th-century-style-business-as-usual.

As evidence, check out yesterday's editorial in the Detroit News, which argues new coal plants are key to Michigan's future.

The Buffalo News, by sharp contrast, editorializes that a new clean energy economy is emerging, with the potential to generate tens of thousands of jobs in the State of New York.