Colo. town energized to go off electric grid

10:52 AM, Apr 25, 2010   |    comments
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If all the town's plans - and there are many - come to pass, Fowler will generate its own electricity, biofuel and manure-based gas; and an empty canning plant will turn into a new solar-panel factory.

At a time when a raft of public officials, including President Barack Obama and Gov. Bill Ritter, are calling green and renewable energy a key to rejuvenating the American economy, tiny Fowler is making itself a full-scale test case.

"This is absolutely changing the town," said Wayne Snider, the town manager and architect of the project. "This is not a pipe dream."

In May, 807 solar panels will go up at eight sites around town and generate 30,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year - enough to cover almost all of the municipal energy needs.

The $1.2 million project is being built by Denver-based Vibrant Solar Inc., which will sell the electricity to Fowler at about half the price it pays its current utility, Black Hills Energy, said Robert Quist, Vibrant's director of sales.

That will be a savings of $20,000 for the town in the first year, Quist estimated.

Vibrant would get about $440,000 in rebates and $40,000 in energy credits over the next 20 years from Black Hills, according to Dan Smith, the utility's director of economic development.

Black Hills will count Fowler as part of its mandate to produce 30 percent of generation from renewable sources.

"You won't find many communities that support renewables like Fowler," Smith said.

And that's just the beginning. There are four other projects on the drawing board -- all told, it could add about 1 megawatt of power, or two-thirds of the entire town's power needs, Snider said.

"The primary goal is to stabilize utility costs and then to reduce them," Snider said, "but our ultimate goal is to become our own utility."

Among the projects the town is exploring are: A photobioreactor turning wastewater lagoon algae into biochemicals, fertilizer or biofuel. An anaerobic digester turning feedlot manure into methane. A wind farm on land the town owns on Windy Point. Additional solar panels on school buildings.

At first glance, Fowler, population 1,200, seems an unlikely green-energy pioneer -- no Boulder, Austin or Berkeley.

A town built on melons, vegetables, sweet corn, sugar beets, chile peppers and beef cattle, Fowler's story is like that of many other farming communities on the broad plains of the Arkansas River Valley.

And like all those towns, it has been a story of decline. In the 1950s, the town had two drugstores, two groceries, three doctors and a J.C. Penney.

"This was a big, little town," said 78-year-old J.H. McCuiston. "The movie theater had two shows Saturday night, and everything was open till 10 p.m."

Three years ago, when Snider, a retired Northrop Grumman Corp. executive from Denver, became town manager, the movie theater was long closed, the doctors were gone and city hall was housed in one of the old grocery stores.

Snider had happily traded his business suits and job as marketing vice president for jeans and cowboy boots. "It is a different way to live," he said.

And just about everyone in town agrees the whole renewable energy project traces right back to Snider.

"Wayne really got this going," said Monie Stites, Fowler's mayor pro tem. "We needed a town manager more than a mayor."

Snider says: "This is a lot more engaging. Corporate work isn't as exciting."

Fowler's interest in renewable energy began with a bargain it couldn't afford, when the town got the old Park Elementary School from the school district for $1 for use as the new city hall.

"We realized we couldn't afford to operate the building unless we found cheaper, renewable energy," Snider said.

So it began. The town, with the help of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at the University of Denver, drew up a comprehensive land-use and development plan.

There is a renewable energy section in the plan, outlining wind, solar, biofuels and anaerobic digester projects over the next five years.

Work is already moving ahead to turn Park Elementary into a $1.7 million energy-efficient city hall.

The town has gathered almost $1 million in funds from the state and private groups, including the An schutz Foundation, the Gates Family Fund and the Daniels Fund, Snider said.

Snider also managed to enlist attorney Susan Perkins, pro bono, to get a ruling from the state Public Utilities Commission that electricity from feedlot methane could be considered an alternative energy supply.

"Fowler has a really compelling vision, and it's attracting a lot of people to come and help them," said Perkins, whose Greenwood Village practice focuses on renewable energy.

Selling the vision at home was a bit trickier.

"Because of the conservative nature of the community, with some people who are older and more conservative, Wayne had to win over the skeptics and old-timers," said Richard Jensen, whose great-grandfather came from Denmark in the 1860s to farm in Fowler.

One focus of the campaign is the schools, where the sixth grade was targeted for lessons on renewable energy. "Then they'd go home and educate their parents," Snider said.

So inspired was Mitchell Fosdick, 11, that he won a first prize for his science fair project on wind energy.

"They are talking about a project at Windy Point, and I though I'd help the mayor keep track of all the wind frequencies," Mitchell explained.

To the business community, the whole project was pitched as an economic development catalyst.

"It is a boost for a rural community, with some potential job growth," said Jonathan Fox, president of Fowler State Bank.

Fox follows his grandfather and father in running the bank, whose motto is: "This Bank Lends Money to Raise More Grain, Raise More Livestock, Raise More Everything -- Waste Nothing."

Helios LLC, a sister company of Vibrant, is looking at building $20 million in solar manufacturing facilities in Colorado and has received offers from six economic development authorities -- including Fowler.

"Fowler looks really good," said Mark Simmons, Helios vice present for marketing.

Fowler's median income is about $26,000, with 11.9 percent of the population under the poverty level, according to U.S. census data.

As a poorer, rural community, the town was able to draw on some federal development resources that other areas could not, Simmons said.

Helios might locate one production line with 160 jobs in town, Simmons said.

"That would be a big boulder in this pond. It would make a huge splash," Fox said.

To older residents, the project has won acceptance as a way to reduce utility bills. "We have to convince people this is doable," said McCuiston.

The project has won over 11-year old Mitchell and 78-year-old McCuiston and a lot of people in between.

"People in Fowler are conservative," said Jensen, whose family has farmed in the valley for more than 100 years. "They are not really flashy, but they are progressive. They pay their bills and look to the future."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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