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AMES — Gov. Chet Culver signed the Iowa Power Fund into law Wednesday, a $100 million program that aims to improve renewable-fuels research and energy efficiency.

Culver invoked the legacies of some famous Iowans — including environmentalist Aldo Leopold and agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug — to underscore the state’s ongoing attempt to harness and preserve its natural resources.

“This will begin the process of making our entire state a laboratory so we can remain on the cutting edge of renewable energy,” he said.

The signing ceremony was held in a food science lab at Iowa State University, with the governor and state dignitaries standing on a smooth concrete floor in front of stainless steel equipment. A similar event was held later in the day at the University of Northern Iowa to sign a related measure.

The Power Fund will be overseen by a new office within state government that will have a director and an 11-member board. The board will use the $100 million, spread out over three years, to invest in research projects at private companies and at state universities. In some cases, the state will be entitled to a share of the financial proceeds from the research.

Culver said the Power Fund doesn’t duplicate the efforts of another state program, the Iowa Values Fund. He said the Power Fund focuses on research, while the Values Fund focuses on creating jobs.

Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said initiatives like the Power Fund will help Iowa and the nation counteract some of the market forces that are leading to high gasoline prices.

“This is about our opportunity to grow our energy rather than buy our energy from overseas,” he said.

Iowa leads the nation in production of ethanol and biodiesel, but leaders in the renewable-fuels industry say the state cannot afford to rest on its laurels.

“The renewable fuels industry is changing rapidly and the technology is improving rapidly, so Iowa needs to do stuff to stay ahead,” said Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

One possible use for the Power Fund is to assist with research into cellulose-based ethanol, which is fuel made from plant waste such as corn stalks and cobs.

The new state office that deals with the Power Fund will be called the Office of Energy Independence. In addition to outside investments through the Power Fund, the office will review state government to reduce energy usage.

The long-term goal is for the state’s energy production to be greater than its energy use.

“It’s a huge step forward for Iowa, declaring our energy independence,” said Rep. Nathan Reichert, D-Muscatine, who helped write the energy efficiency provisions of the bill.

When the Legislature debated the Power Fund, Republicans raised concerns that the state doesn’t have enough money to pay for the program.

House Minority Leader Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, said during the debate that he supports the fund’s goals, but wonders if the money will be there to continue it beyond the initial $100 million.

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Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, co-chairman of the committee that oversees economic development spending, said Wednesday that the $100 million is just the beginning of the state’s investment.

“It’s something we’re going to build off of,” he said.

Dan Gearino can be reached at 515-243-0138 and dan.gearino@lee.net

BREAKOUT

Iowa Power Fund

What is it? The Power Fund is a $100 million program that will pursue investment in renewable fuels and energy conservation over the next three years. The Legislature will need to re-authorize the program after that.

Who can apply for money? The governor’s office says the Power Fund will provide grants and loans to selected applicants who want to do the following: 1) Develop new types of renewable energy; 2) Research commercial uses for new biofuels; or 3) Develop technology that would improve energy efficiency.

Who decides where the money goes? The Power Fund Board will be overseen by 11 members who will oversee the program. A seven-member Due Diligence Committee will review applicants for Power Fund assistance and make recommendation to the larger board.

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