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Thinking Neutral: Small Towns Look to Renewables to Reduce Reliance on the Grid

The town of Fowler, Colo., (pop. 1,087) sits in a 150-mile corridor between Pueblo and the Kansas border that boasts about half a million head of cattle. A few years ago, Fowler, like much of the country, faced a difficult economy and rising energy prices. Local government officials decided the cows and the energy weren't so unrelated as they seemed. They started thinking about how cattle – and the other features of the region – might help the town's fortunes.

Soon Fowler had become a standard-bearer for towns looking to become green town by going grid neutral, or producing as much or more power than it uses. They looked at a variety of renewable energy technologies, from putting the 2,400 tons of cow manure that are produced every day in Fowler into an anaerobic digester to make methane gas, to a wind farm to bedecking town buildings and grounds with solar panels.

Town leaders started exploring renewable energy first as a preserving the town coffers, according to Wayne Snider, a former executive with Grumman Aerospace, who was the town’s administrator during this period. The economic development and environmental benefits were an added bonus.

“I think the impetus behind everything at first is to save money,” Snider said in a recent interview. “Then they can see also that there’s potential for creating jobs.”

Fowler and a handful of small green towns and cities across America are on the vanguard looking to lower electricity costs, draw state and federal dollars or simply turn the community a nicer shade of green. But they face considerable challenges in realizing energy independence.

Big Plans in Fowler

Snider’s team sifted all of the options for renewable energy in Fowler. They installed an anemometer to measure the potential for wind power in the region and got to work on an initial solar project to get residents on board. That project included about 600 kilowatts of photovoltaic panels at seven sites around town on municipal property – from water pumping stations to a cemetery (“People thought that was weird,” says Snider). Denver-based Vibrant Solar, Inc. built the $1.2 million project and sells the electricity back to Fowler at about half the rate of the current utility.

The efforts attracted notice from all over – they got help from Colorado State University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and others. They celebrated the solar arrays’ commissioning with a visit from then Gov. Bill Ritter.

“We hooked it up to show the public how much money could be saved, and it worked, the town is saving money,” Snider says. “It should have saved somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 the first year.”

A Dream on Hold

The hope was to follow up with a 2-megawatt solar array to the south of the town, and the anaerobic digestion plant that would not only bring Fowler closer to grid-neutrality but also add 45 jobs or so to the struggling economy.

So far, these bigger plans haven’t come to fruition. The town’s leadership changed over, the company that installed those first solar arrays dissolved after state solar rebates disappeared, and the grid-neutrality goal stalled.

The story isn’t unfamiliar. One of the more high profile efforts to go grid-independent is Reynolds, Ind., the self-proclaimed BioTown, USA. The project began in the mid 2000s with a stated goal of getting all of Reynolds’s energy – not just electricity, but heating and vehicle fuel as well – from renewable sources. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels got on board, and just as in Fowler, a number of big ideas started to take shape.

Reynolds had designs on an anaerobic digestion plant, a perfect match for the 150,000 pigs within a 15-mile radius. But again, logistics got in the way; last year a large plant went online at a nearby cattle farm, but it is outside of Reynolds and feeds electricity to the grid. Still, it does produce more power than Reynolds uses, so the original dream did result in some renewable power generation. It’s just not how planners imagined it.

And there are ancillary benefits: Companies are looking at siting new projects in the area. “The publicity from it is positive, it’s kept Reynolds on the radar,” says John Heimlich, who was the president of the BioTown Development Authority when the ideas were being formed.

Spreading the Word

Fowler’s Snider is now working with other towns in Colorado – Olney Springs, Ordway, and others – to develop wind and solar projects. They are still also seeking to build a regional anaerobic digestion plant.

“If you get to a point where your town is not quite off the grid, but you’re able to offer a utility to your residents that’s less than the current rate, you can see that attracting people wanting to move to your town” Snider says. If Fowler had built the 2-MW solar plant it had planned, he says they could have locked into a super low electricity rate of six cents per kilowatt-hour; now, the utility rate is closer to 15 cents.

Tempered Expectations

The lesson of Fowler and Reynolds may be simple: keep expectations realistic.

Wade Yost, the town manager of Poolesville, Md,, says they have started with energy-saving LED street lighting in the town center, and hope to grow their renewable projects from there.

“Ultimately, we were looking at being independent of the grid itself, but that’s very difficult to do for a town our size,” Yost says (Poolesville’s population is a bit over 5,000, about ten times bigger than Reynolds). “So now we’re doing the best we can.”

The next project for Poolesville is a 1.5 MW solar array for the town’s wastewater plant. They are currently accepting proposals from industry to build it, with the hope of taking a big chunk out of the $65,000 spent on electricity for the plant every year.

“We’re just trying to tie it all in and be a really green community,” Yost says.

Dave Levitan is a journalist focused primarily on energy and the environment. His work has appeared at Yale e360, OnEarth, and IEEE Spectrum, among other places.

This article was originally published on ecomagination and was republished with permission.

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