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Holmberg honored as 11th Energy Champion

Created in 1986, honor recognizes leadership as well as commitment to energy and environmental research nationwide

State Sen. Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks, N.D., was honored as the 11th recipient of the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center’s Energy Champion Award. Photo by Kari Suedel/EERC.

“This has merit.”

Those three words, spoken by state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, made Tom Erickson, CEO of the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), hopeful about the prospects for the North Dakota Energy Initiative. It was a project on which he and many others at the EERC had been working for nearly five years to provide the Center’s scientists and engineers with critical funding for exploratory, innovative and transformational research.

Sen. Ray Holmberg

Speaking during an EERC staff meeting before presenting Holmberg with the Center’s 11th Energy Champion Award, Erickson recalled the moment when, “I knew it meant the senator believed in this idea, believed in all of you and was willing to help champion it forward.”

In April, the North Dakota Legislature passed and Gov. Doug Burgum signed a bill introduced by Holmberg creating and funding the State Energy Research Center (SERC), which Erickson will lead from the EERC. The new center will receive $5 million per biennium to conduct research that advances future energy opportunities to benefit North Dakota’s economy and environment. Under the legislation, 1 percent of oil and gas production and oil extraction tax revenues are allocated to fund SERC.

Exceptional commitment

The Energy Champion Award – created by the EERC in 1986 – honors those who have demonstrated leadership and an exceptional commitment to energy and environmental research and development nationwide. Past recipients have included U.S. senators John Hoeven, Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan and Mark Andrews, and former UND President Tom Clifford.

In accepting the award, Holmberg noted that when he became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he learned the best approach was to surround himself with smart people and “let them breathe.” It’s an approach for which the EERC is well known, he said.

EERC CEO Tom Erickson (left) presents Sen. Ray Holmberg with the Energy Champion Award in honor of his leadership and exceptional commitment to advancing energy and environmental research. Photo by Kari Suedel/EERC.

“This will allow you to go out and create,” Holmberg told EERC staff. “You – the scientists, the engineers and other folks – will be able to breathe and come up with those kinds of ideas that will move the needle.”

In video remarks, Interim UND President Joshua Wynne said Holmberg’s support of the EERC and North Dakota’s energy sector warranted his designation as an Energy Champion. “We, the citizens of the state, are grateful for his contributions over the years to higher education, energy and efforts to make the state a better place to live for the citizens of North Dakota,” Wynne said.

He also praised Holmberg’s vision and leadership in supporting more research funding for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), his integral role in obtaining funding for UND’s new School of Medicine & Health Sciences to address healthcare shortages in the state, supporting infrastructure development during the Bakken shale oil boom and balancing the need for state investments with concerns that tax dollars are spent wisely.

Wynne quoted NHL great Wayne Gretzky as saying that while a good hockey player skates to where the puck is, a great hockey player skates to where it will be.

“One of the things Ray does particularly well is to anticipate what will be happening in the future,” Wynne explained. “Ray was very effective in seeing the future of shale and its importance to North Dakota. Under his guidance and leadership, North Dakota is going to where the puck will be and not just where it is.”

Mentoring role

Stacey Dahl, senior manager of external affairs for Grand Forks-based Minnkota Power Cooperative, credited Holmberg with mentoring her as a young, newly elected legislator.

“At 23, I thought I knew a lot, but I actually didn’t,” she said. “I needed a lot of guidance and wisdom. It was people like Ray who guided me through the politics and the policy. I think I became a far better legislator as a result of Ray’s mentorship. He is so astute in reading people, in reading situations and understanding our citizens and what they ultimately want and need.”

Stacey Dahl, senior manager of external affairs for Minnkota Power Cooperative, praised Holmberg for mentoring her as a young, newly elected legislator. Photo by Kari Suedel/EERC.

Erickson said that when the federal government stopped funding directed research at the EERC, there was a direct correlation in the decline of invention disclosures submitted by the Center.

“On average, we submitted about 15 new invention disclosures a year when we had federally directed dollars,” Erickson said. “In 2018, we had zero. A lot of that was because we focused strictly on applied research and not exploratory research.”

Holmberg, Erickson said, became the EERC’s champion in the last legislative session, recognizing that the Center had the potential to play a much larger, more supportive role for North Dakota if given the freedom and opportunity to explore what the state and its citizens needed to address energy and environmental challenges.

EERC’s track record

“With this new funding source, we have the ability to invent, to be creative, to start to think of things that others haven’t done and advance them forward,” he explained.

As Holmberg noted, “It’s a steep climb because one thing legislators don’t like to do is to replace federal money when the feds retreat from some area. But I think the major factor as to why the legislature was eager to do this was because of EERC’s record of accomplishment in the areas of research and actually delivering. When they talked about the EERC and its track record, it was a much easier sell.”

Holmberg, a retired Grand Forks Public Schools counselor, holds bachelor and master’s degrees from UND. He was elected to the North Dakota senate in 1976, representing District 17 for more than 40 years. He’s one of the longest-serving tenured legislators in the U.S. He chairs the Senate Appropriations and the Procedural Rules committees while serving on the interim Budget Section. Holmberg is chair of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which includes 16 states and two U.S. territories.