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Ind. town cultivates renewable energy

Aims to generate all needed power

REYNOLDS, Ind. -- This farming hamlet is aiming to generate its own electricity and natural gas, using everything from municipal trash to farm waste, hog manure, and even town sewage.

If the experiment works, Reynolds and its 500 residents will be the nation's first community to use renewable resources to meet the energy needs of all their homes and businesses.

Dubbed Biotown USA, the project is the brainchild of Indiana's Department of Agriculture.

State officials hope to break ground in November on a $10 million ``technology suite," a privately funded center that will house the core equipment needed to turn manure and other biomass material into energy.

It should generate electricity for the town by July 2007.

From there, state officials hope another $10 million from private investors will upgrade the system so it can also produce natural gas.

Much of the technology has been implemented elsewhere in waste treatment centers and industries such as paper manufacturing, researchers said. But Biotown would be the first time the machinery is combined and working in synch.

``It's not like we have a blueprint to follow," said William Schroeder, 52, a farmer. ``We're going by the seat of our pants."

Proponents say the project will lower local utility costs and help the environment. Organizers estimate a barrel of biomass will cost about $40.

Crude oil edged above $75 a barrel this past week.

``Our goal, and what we're going to continue to work on, is for it to cost less," said Ryan West, who is leading the Biotown project for the Agriculture Department. ``We said we'd call it a failure if energy bills went up."

If the project succeeds, Reynolds could be a prototype for reducing the United States' dependence on foreign oil.

``This becomes a living laboratory for us," said Bernie Engel, head of the agricultural and biological engineering department at Purdue University. ``Reynolds may be a demonstration location for some of this initially. And then we'll see it hopefully spreading beyond that."

First, however, the experiment has to take hold in Reynolds.

Roger Wiese, 65, a farmer, hasn't decided yet whether to sell 2 million gallons of hog manure to Biotown instead of using it as fertilizer on his fields. He'll agree only if he can make a profit.

``There's not enough money in agriculture that we can run it as a charity," he said. ``Without it working economically, it doesn't become feasible."

State officials said they don't need total participation from farmers. A study found there were more than 150,000 hogs within 15 miles of town, and organizers estimate that the animals, along with other organic waste in the area, are enough to produce 74 times the energy Reynolds needs.

Researchers say wood, paper, sawdust, cornstalks, wheat straw, plant materials, human waste, alcoholic drinks, waste baked goods, and used vegetable oils also can be converted to fuel.

``Some people are questioning if we save money," said Christine McGill, a cook, waitress, and hostess at USA Family Restaurant. ``To me, what if we don't? We're still saving the environment."

Schroeder, a fourth-generation farmer, says Reynolds could be a trendsetter.

``Whether this works or not, I hope someone looks back someday and says, `There's a group of people who tried something,' " he said.

``I think the American people are ready for this."

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