Lois Quam: Minnesota, Norway and a clean-energy future

  • Article by: LOIS QUAM
  • March 18, 2008 - 6:31 PM

One key to a rejuvenated Minnesota economy could lie in a modernized relationship with Norway.

Joined by a shared heritage, Norway and Minnesota can benefit from a new approach to building businesses -- especially one that builds on our historic assets.

Approximately 850,000 Minnesotans have Norwegian immigrant ancestors. I stand among them, with four Norwegian-American grandparents. My grandfather, Nils Kvamme, arrived at Ellis Island and anglicized his name to Nels Quam. Like other immigrants, he left Norway seeking education, good farming and better work.

As a colony dominated by Sweden and Denmark, his Norway was among Europe's poorest countries. In some areas, half the people left for America. Those remaining faced long winters, poverty and Nazi occupation. Even after World War II, Norway was an industrialized but peripheral nation.

Today, Norway is the world's richest country, fueled by oil discovery in 1969 and an exceedingly well-managed economy. This change occurred in a single generation, creating a modern nation with important companies across various sectors. A prosperous economy, a vibrant democracy that is transparent in its affairs, and a strong commitment to international development and peace make Norway an important country on the world's stage.

What stood out most prominently during my two trips to Norway this winter -- one with polar explorer Will Steger and another with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. -- was the country's unusual position as an Arctic country and as a major oil producer. During my visit, the warming polar climate was coupled with a burning desire for economic and political action to address it. In fact, a recent poll published in the leading Oslo paper, Aftenposten, noted that nearly half of Norway's population said it was willing to shut down oil production to help the environment.

I saw the explanation in Tromsø, a town of 60,000 above the Arctic Circle, where I have a host of relatives. In the past, the snow provided a sense of light during the dark winter months. This winter, the snow largely came miserably as rain, making the days without sunlight truly dark and carrying with it a fearful sense of Arctic warming.

Norway, highly motivated and capable, is committed to act but needs global partners to make a difference on climate change. As a natural partner for Norway, Minnesota offers research universities, leadership in renewable-energy legislation, key industries and a record of taking socially important industries built on innovation to scale.

The strong relationship between Norway and Minnesota is built on our shared past; we should now focus on a shared future. While we share history and heritage, we also share the resources required to develop and commercialize the clean technology and renewable-energy platforms needed to reduce climate change. These include research universities, company incubators, entrepreneurs, relevant large companies and investment banks.

For example, Minnesota has pioneered wind energy through legislative leadership, Xcel Energy's commitments, and the many entrepreneurs and wind farmers on Buffalo Ridge in southwest Minnesota. Norwegian oil company StatoilHydro operates offshore oil-drilling platforms with industry-leading safety and environmental features. Together, we have an opportunity to enhance onshore and offshore wind energy production and distribution capacity.

Minnesota has also demonstrated its ability to innovate and improve traditional biofuels. Through David Tilman's work at the University of Minnesota and through entrepreneurial biomass companies, Minnesota leads in research on discovering new forms of carbon-effective biofuels, such as prairie switchgrass. Norway's University of Ås has accomplished researchers in this area who are linked to the University of Minnesota, but has little of the kind of capacity to commercialize or bring this arena to scale as we have in Minnesota.

Our shared heritage brings together similar values and approach, which are the kind of cultural elements that make for successful business partnerships. A more vibrant relationship between Norway and Minnesota, based on the research and commercialization of renewable energy and clean technology, benefits both of us and the world. Together, we can spur more rapid responses to the most urgent challenges of our day. Our ancestors would be proud.

The current economic conditions in Minnesota have made clear that we need to reinvent ourselves and create new and lasting opportunities. A renewed partnership with Norway provides a relevant strategy for Minnesota to create wealth and budget surpluses. Then we can talk about what we want to do, rather than what we need to cut.

Lois Quam is a managing director at Piper Jaffray and was the 2005 Norwegian American of the Year.

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