FOWLER, COLO. -- Like many a farming community, Fowler on Colorado's southeastern plains has seen better days. But now it has a new plan. It is going to disappear -- from the electric grid.
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 solar-panel factory.
At a time that a raft of public officials, from President Obama to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, are calling green and renewable energy a key to rejuvenating America's economy, tiny Fowler is making itself a full-scale test case.
"This is absolutely changing the town," said Wayne Snider, 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 municipal energy needs.
The $1.2 million project is being built by Denver-based Vibrant Solar Inc., which will sell the electricity to Fowler for about half what it pays its current utility, Black Hills Energy, said Robert Quist, Vibrant's director of sales.
That will save the town $20,000 in the first year, Quist estimated.
Vibrant will 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. Fowler will also help Black Hills reach the state mandate to produce 30 percent of its electric generation from renewable sources.
"You won't find many communities that support renewables like Fowler," Smith said.
That's just the beginning. Four other projects on the drawing board could generate about 1 megawatt of power or two-thirds of the 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 explored projects:
•A photo-bioreactor turning waste water lagoon algae into biochemicals, fertilizer or biofuel.
•An anaerobic digester turning feedlot manure to methane.
•A wind farm on town land.
•More solar panels on schools.
A onetime 'big little town'
At first glance Fowler, population 1,200, seems an unlikely green energy pioneer. A town built on growing melons, vegetables, sweet corn, sugar beets, chile peppers and cattle, Fowler's story is like that of many other farming communities.
It has been a story of decline. In the 1950s, the town had two drugstores, two groceries, three doctors and a J.C. Penney store.
"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 happily traded his business suits and marketing VP title for jeans and cowboy boots. "This is a lot more engaging. Corporate work isn't as exciting."
Just about everyone in town agrees the whole renewable-energy project traces 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."
Fowler's interest in renewable energy began with a bargain it couldn't afford. The town got the old Park Elementary School from the school district for $1 for use as the new City Hall. But officials couldn't afford to operate it unless they found cheaper, renewable energy, Snider said.
So 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 that outlines 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 almost $1 million in state funds and private donations.
Snider also managed to enlist the free services of attorney Susan Perkins to get a ruling from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that electricity from feedlot methane could be considered an alternative energy supply.
Selling the vision
"Fowler has a really compelling vision, and it's attracting a lot of people to come and help them," said Perkins, whose Denver practice focuses on renewable energy.
Selling the vision at home was a bit trickier. Sixth-graders were taught lessons on renewable energy. "Then they'd go home and educate their parents," Snider said.
To the business community it 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.
Helios LLC, a sister company of Vibrant, is looking at building $20 million in solar manufacturing facilities in Colorado and has offers from six economic development authorities -- including Fowler.
"Fowler looks really good," particularly for a production line with 160 jobs, said Mark Simmons, Helios vice present for marketing.
Said Fox: "That would be a big boulder in this pond. It would make a huge splash."