Money troubles stall green town project

BIOTOWN, SOUTH DAKOTA - This one-stoplight farming hamlet had big dreams in 2005 when it was christened BioTown USA.

Its goal: to become the first U.S. community to meet all electricity and gas needs through renewable energy by using everything from farm waste to sewage.

Industry and government officials led the early charge. BP installed a gas pump offering an ethanol fuel blend, and South Dakota-based VeraSun Energy Corp. started building an ethanol production plant near town.

Former U.S. agriculture secretary Mike Johanns stopped by in support, as did the band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Visitors also included a group of Chilean corn farmers who were touring the Midwest and interested in learning more about biofuels.

But the visitors are long gone, and many say the excitement is too. Money problems, leadership changes and other obstacles have sparked skepticism that Reynolds will ever succeed at moving the state, much less the nation, toward homegrown energy and away from foreign oil.

"I'm not happy about the whole situation, and a lot of people in town aren't either," said farmer Tonie Snyder. He helped provide thousands of bales of corn stover last fall that were supposed to be burned using technology that now may never be built.

From the outset, the vision for BioTown was ambitious. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and the state Department of Agriculture wanted to create a model for energy self-sufficiency. No other U.S. community produces all its own energy, and a German village that runs on renewable energy took eight years to develop.

But project officials believed they could turn this community of about 550 people, surrounded by silos and stubbly corn fields, into something special.

"We are taking challenges and turning them into opportunities by developing homegrown, local energy production to become independent from foreign sources," Daniels said in announcing the project.

The timetable was aggressive. State officials hoped to break ground in November 2006 on a $10 million facility that would house the core equipment needed to turn manure and other biomass material into energy, and start generating electricity for the town by July 2007.

The groundbreaking happened, and General Motors offered deals on flex fuel vehicles to people living in the Reynolds ZIP code. But there has been little other progress, and now BioTown leaders acknowledge they have adjusted their vision. But they insist the project will happen.

"What we try to remind folks all the time is that this project, there's no manual that you pull out and say, 'How do you do a BioTown?'" Indiana Agriculture Director Andy Miller said. "We're kind of inventing it as we go."

BioTown seemed like a "shot in the arm" to Fred Buschman, a lifelong resident of this community about 80 miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis.

"It was like something you dreamed of but never really believed could happen," the 77-year-old town council member said.

A couple of restaurants, car dealerships and a gas station make up most of Reynolds proper. But steady streams of truck traffic flow through town each day on state route 43 and U.S. 24, and railroads crisscross the community. State leaders said the infrastructure and surrounding farms made Reynolds an ideal location for BioTown.

"They were going to make this a showtown for the whole world to come in and look at, and I thought it was the greatest thing that ever could happen to the town of Reynolds," Snyder said.

State officials said private funding would drive the project. The startup firm Rose Energy Discovery Inc. would install an anaerobic digester, a device that converts manure methane into electricity, and a gassifier would be built to create a gas that can be burned for heat or put in a boiler to make steam.

But Rose Energy dropped out last summer after failing to line up enough private investment. In October, VeraSun suspended construction on its ethanol plant due to a steep drop in ethanol prices, which combined with high corn prices has slowed factory construction around the country.

Work has not begun on the Reynolds digester.

Last fall, Snyder and his fellow farmers readied about 5,000 bales of mostly corn stover that was supposed to feed the gassifier. Months later, thousands of the unused bales collect snow and rain as they sit in a field just outside town.

The farmers finally received full payment for the bales earlier this month, Snyder said.

The new technology developer, Energy Systems Group, hasn't decided whether to install the gassifier, so state officials say the bales will become animal bedding.

BioTown proponents say there's still plenty going on.

Energy Systems Group, a Vectren Corp. subsidiary, will spend about $10 million on the digester and is still lining up financing for it. President Jim Adams said he hopes to start building within the next month or so and wants to produce power by the end of this year.

"The whole process has gone a little slower than we anticipated, securing the fuel and a power purchase agreement for some of the output," he said. "But that's all coming together."

Most of what they produce will likely be sold to a power company. BioTown leaders learned early that it would be nearly impossible to take Reynolds off an established electricity grid so it could supply its own power.

Miller said the cost to build a grid just for Reynolds would be prohibitive, and the community would still need backup help to prevent service interruptions.

BioTown Development Authority President John Heimlich preaches patience as the project sputters on. Last year, he and other BioTown leaders visited the German village of Juehnde, which runs on renewable energy.

"I think what we see now, maybe as our vision, is kind of an evolving project, so maybe there isn't a final look so to speak," he said.

Despite the setbacks, BioTown is attacking global energy problems with local solutions, and that's the best approach, said Brooke Coleman, director of the Boston-based New Fuels Alliance, a renewable energy advocacy group.

He said the project takes on some steep obstacles like removing a community from an established power grid. Renewable energy developers have tried to do this for years and have long met resistance from power companies.

Aside from that, the slumping economy and falling dollar make investors cautious about renewable energy technology.

"This town is tackling some of the most challenging issues facing the move toward energy independence," he said.


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