The path to sustainable energy goes through Reynolds, Indiana
Ask hog farmer Roger Wiese if he's an environmentalist and he'll reply in a tone that suggests the question itself is ridiculous. But ask him what he thinks about the plan to power his town with alternative fuels and he grows reflective.
"There's only so long we can afford to keep using foreign oil," he says. "Sooner or later we're going to have to figure something else out."
Wiese's hometown, rechristened BioTown, USA, is now moving into phase two of its three-stage plan for energy self-sufficiency. Ultimately, the goal is to meet all the town's energy needsincluding electricity, heating, and transportationthrough sustainable sources. So far, the accomplishments are modest: The town's gas station has ethanol and biodiesel pumps, and more than a quarter of its 550 residents are driving flex-fuel vehicles.
But in November, construction crews plan to break ground on a $7.5 million power plant that will convert animal waste, cornstalks, municipal sewage, and other biomass into 2.5 megawatts of power at peak output (the town uses 1.9 megawatts with air conditioners blasting). The plant will work in three ways: gasification, a process that cooks organic waste into biogas; anaerobic digestion, which uses microbes to transform feces into methane; and fast pyrolysis, a heating process that turns biomass into oil.
All this is fascinating for its eco- and techy coolness. But what's really significant here is the fact that BioTown, USA, isn't on a commune in Vermont or a campus in Northern California. BioTown, a.k.a. Reynolds, is in the solidly red state of Indiana. And in a nation full of towns like Reynolds, this may be what matters most.
Christine Dahlenburg knows just about everyone in Reynolds: She's the town photographer and her family has lived there a century. She says people have expressed cautious enthusiasm ever since Governor Mitch Daniels announced the town would be a testing ground for alternative energy (with much of the funding coming from the private sector). She herself has a new corn-burning furnace in her studioone of several her brother, Chad, has sold to town residents. Chad Dahlenburg is also one of the people responsible for putting up the U.S. armed-forces flags on the town's street corners. He says the projects are similar. And if you think about it, there's a natural progression from patriotism to local energy.
Of course, experimenting with feces-based power is not without drawbacks. "The kids have started calling us Turd Town," says Christine. And then there's the question of whether this alternative energy will be the right alternative: These days it takes a lot of fossil fuel to grow corn. But that's not the point. In pioneering sustainable energy, the residents of Reynolds are simply doing what comes naturally: rolling up their sleeves and going to work.