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KAI RYSSDAL: We're back with Consumed, our series on the consumer economy airing all week on this and other American Public Media programs. Let's concentrate for a second on the consumer in consumer economy. You've probably heard us say before that our spending accounts for something near 70 percent of everything that happens in the American economy. But the amount of stuff we're buying with all that spending has doubled over the past 20 years. As that volume has grown, so have the negative side-effects: Pollution. Natural resources getting used up. And what might be the biggest consumer consequence of all:
WOMAN: Global warming.
MAN: I believe in global warming.
WOMAN 2: Global warming.
WOMAN 3: Global warming is most likely the result of our over-consumption.
MAN 2: Oh. Global warming. Yeah.
WOMAN 4: It's all connected. You know, how things are made and what we consume.
Before we can do any consuming, though, it takes energy to manufacture a product. And then more to ship it to market. Which means greenhouse gases. On the short list of good solutions to that problem is something often talked about but seldom truly demonstrated: Innovation. Good ideas that can transform everything from the fuel we make, to the networks that distribute it, to the vehicles that use it. None of that happens for free, though. So one town in rural Indiana is trying to scrape together private money and give it a go. Our Sustainability reporter Sam Eaton has more.
Sam Eaton: The governor, town leaders and most of the residents of tiny Reynolds, Ind., hope to make history in the battle against global warming. They want to create the nation's first energy-independent municipality using alternative fuels. They've even renamed Reynolds Bio-Town, USA, complete with a trademark.
But it's Bio-Town's assets, not its name, that have the potential to put it on the map. Topping the list? Location, location, location.
Harry Eggink: Two state highways cross east to west and north to south.
Harry Eggink teaches environmental design at Ball State University.
Eggink: They also have a railroad that goes east to west. So therefore, their town is the intersection.
But Bio-Town has more than links to energy hungry markets, says Town Board President Charlie Van Voorst.
Charlie Van Voorst: We have hog manure. We have human waste. We have corn stover that's renewable. We have grease and oil from restaurants. Animal fat from processing plants. I mean, it's endless -- I think you can just go on and on and on.
Add it all up, Van Voorst says, and the area surrounding Bio-Town is a virtual Saudi Arabia of untapped sludge. The town wants to install new technology that would convert all of this waste into energy. And it's making progress.
Seventy-six-year-old resident Fred Buschman takes me on a tour of Bio-Town's changing landscape -- literally:
Fred Buschman: I guess we're not going any farther -- they got dirt across the road there.
Tractors are clearing a huge swath of land for a new ethanol plant. Further down the road, Buschman points out the town's newly minted ethanol gas station. About one in five residents here, including Buschman, drive cars that run on the corn-based fuel -- the highest percentage in the nation.
We stop to talk to Tony Snyder. He's stacking thousands of bales of leftover corn stalks. Each bale is the size of a dumpster.
Tony Snyder: We want to have, by the end of the year, somewhere between 40- and 50,000 of these.
The town hopes to use the old corn stalks as fuel for its biomass power plant. Fred Buschman acknowledges the project's ambition, but he says the status quo no longer works.
Buschman: To me, the whole concept makes sense. We just got into an era when everything was throwaway -- buy something and use it for a little bit, then throw it away then buy something new. We can't do that any more.
Especially if they've got the assets to do it differently. Tony Snyder ticks off the list: location, raw materials, the commitment and vision to remake Bio-Town as a model for energy independence. But there's a snag.
Snyder: If we can just get the money people convinced... That's the whole factor right there, the money (laughs).
Despite some early success, progress has been slow. Reynolds' biomass power plant would cost an estimated $15 million to build -- a lot of cash for a town that has trouble funding community picnics.
Jody Snodgrass: Raising money is never as easy as it sounds.
Jody Snodgrass is one of those "money people" Snyder was mentioning. His company, Rose Energy Discovery, is trying to line up enough private capital to get the project off the ground. But big-ticket investors have yet to bite.
Snodgrass: I mean, you're talking about spending lots of money, several million dollars. And you know for most investors, it comes down to the black-and-white, and what's that number with the two underlines under it say at the bottom.
Snodgrass says Bio-Town's energy project should pay for itself within five to six years. Many investors think it will take longer, and they cringe at a deal with so many moving parts:
Snodgrass: From state, local, regulatory officials to several different technologies that we're trying to incorporate together... Some people are shy of the political nature of Bio-Town.
That's forced Bio-Town to borrow the money itself in order to kick-start the project. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who first hatched the plan, says using state funds isn't an option. He says if Bio-Town has any chance of being replicated nationwide, the hand of government has to be light.
Gov. Mitch Daniels: We have a world to change here. And if these alternative sources of energy and modes of producing energy are really going to have the scale they need to improve our environment -- our national security, frankly -- then they're going to have to earn their way, win their way in the marketplace.
In the meantime, it's far from clear whether the marketplace or whether global warming will win the race. In Bio-Town USA, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.