FEATURE - Rural Indiana Town Sees Power, Renewal in Pig Manure
Author: Nick Carey
"They all did well, too," said the 75-year-old town councilor, who has lived here all his life. "But now we only have one left."
Like many rural communities across the Midwest, Reynolds -- surrounded by hog farms and corn and soy fields -- has seen its fortunes decline in the past few decades, as residents drifted to cities in search of jobs.
Now local officials see hope in a project aimed at providing power using renewable resources -- primarily millions of gallons of pig manure.
Against a backdrop of rising energy prices and a growing national debate about fuel and energy sources, Reynolds -- population 547 in the 2000 Census -- was chosen by the state of Indiana last year as the site of a project dubbed BioTown.
The first step was to promote E85 -- 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline. The town's only gas station, run by BP Plc., installed an E85 pump at the end of September.
The next is to take Reynolds off the conventional power grid.
Touring an 8,000-pig farm, Jody Snodgrass of Rose Energy Discovery Inc. notes that a pig can produce 7 gallons of waste a day. By law, farmers here must have 520 days worth of waste storage because there are so few days when the weather is right for spreading it on fields.
The result is huge stinking cesspits that the pork industry daintily refers to as lagoons.
"These buildings sit on colossal tanks full of manure," he said. "If we can turn it into power, these farmers won't need so much storage space."
Rose Energy, based in Advance, Indiana, is investing US$7 million on three types of technology to turn pig manure into power in Reynolds.
The main one is anaerobic digestion, where pig manure is mixed with waste like leftover food and straw. As it decomposes it produces methane, which is burned to generate electricity.
Rose Energy will begin construction work on the digester in 2007 and it will go into operation in mid-2008.
The byproducts from the process are a natural fertilizer, plus carbon dioxide when the methane is burned. The other two technologies are manure gasification, where the manure is heated to produce methane and fast pyrolysis, where it is heated to produce a liquid fuel.
POWER TO SPARE
Snodgrass says his "technology suite" will produce 3.2 megawatts of power. Reynolds uses 1.2 megawatts, rising to a peak of 1.9 megawatts on hot summer days when the town's residents have their air conditioning running. Rose Energy will sell the excess energy to reduce local bills.
He said his backers are watching closely to see if the project can make a profit and be replicated elsewhere in the United States.
Although Indiana backs BioTown, officials say they want funding for the power project to come from the private sector to make it financially viable.
"BioTown must be able to survive in the marketplace without government intervention," said Ryan West, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture manager coordinating the project.
Environmentalists say they are pleased Indiana is trying to raise awareness of renewable fuels, but are disappointed BioTown is restricted to one small community.
"When we have a BioState, then I will be truly impressed," said Nathaniel Green, a biofuels expert with environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.
Rising oil and natural gas prices in the past few years have focused US consumer and investor attention on projects like BioTown that seek to produce energy using renewable resources and reduce US reliance on foreign oil.
"When you have US$3-a-gallon gas, many things become feasible," he said.
Tony Snyder, 66, a local farmer is selling US$100,000 worth of corn stover -- leftover stalks after corn is harvested -- to Rose Energy for its anaerobic digester. "It will be good if (BioTown) saves folks money and helps others make some," Snyder said.
Snodgrass said several companies are looking to set up shop in Re