In it for the long haul
WILLMAR -- When Sen. Al Franken's field office contacted the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission last month and requested a formal presentation on what's happening locally with renewable energy, the pressure was on.
Especially for Cathy Keuseman, the EDC's agribusiness and renewable energy specialist.
But Keuseman pulled it off, lining up a series of local experts and putting together a 90-minute presentation that covered everything from biomass and geothermal projects to wind and solar energy.
It was one of the best moments she's had since being hired five months ago for the position with the EDC.
"He was very impressed," she said of the Minnesota senator's reaction. "They're not going to forget us."
Seizing opportunities like this is one of the ways Kandiyohi County will put itself on the map as a leader in renewable energy, said Keuseman.
"We want to be a model for other communities to follow," she said. "We are in a special geographic area that can make this happen."
It's a measure of the EDC's belief in the future of renewable energy that it created a part-time staff position a few years ago that focuses entirely on agribusiness and renewable energy -- a melding of the county's oldest industry with one of its newest.
Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission, believes it's a historic time.
"We think the renewable resources industry is in the same place the industrial revolution was at in the 19th century," he said. "We think that we are well positioned... We have established a framework that will be profitable to existing Kandiyohi County businesses and Kandiyohi County residents for years to come."
Keuseman considers herself "so fortunate" to be hired by the EDC this past March when the position became open.
A former business owner and consultant, she has experience in the biotechnology and nanotechnology fields. Following a move from Arizona to rural New London with her family, she also picked up a marketing and business development degree at Ridgewater College, where her interest in the renewable resources arena was whetted by several research projects she undertook.
"It really fits what I'm doing now," she said. "The agriculture and the energy combination is very exciting for me."
There's no real blueprint for what Keuseman and the EDC's agribusiness and renewable energy committee are doing.
"It's opportunities that happen, or chance meetings. You just have to be really adaptable," Keuseman said.
Her very first project: putting together a database of every farmer and every person involved in renewable energy in Kandiyohi County. The list came to some 700 names. Next, she developed a website and blog at www.kandi-ag-energy.com, where regular posts help keep site visitors up to date on news and opportunities in renewable energy.
Her days are often busy meeting with producers and state agencies.
Initiatives that she and the EDC committee are working on range from fuel cell development to the use of anhydrous ammonia as an energy source. She and Renquist are on a newly formed task force examining the feasibility of generating energy from the garbage mass at the Kandiyohi County landfill.
A series of biobusiness forums, to be held four times a year, are off to a good start, with attendance that has almost doubled.
"It's a way to get everyone in the room talking," Keuseman said. "I've actually had people tell me the networking portion before the meeting is the most valuable."
She has been especially impressed with the community support for renewable energy initiatives.
"They're embracing it," she said. "I'm hearing more people say, 'We've got to get ahead of this. We can be a leader with this.' I don't think you get that attitude everywhere."
At a personal level, she says she has become much more conscious of energy consumption. She shops less often, puts fewer miles on her vehicle and is conscientious about recycling.
"It has everything to do with you and your children and your grandchildren," she said. "Everything we're doing locally right now is to hold that energy consumption down and have a more sustainable community. We may not see it in a year or two but maybe we'll see it in five years."