YUMA, Colo. (AP)--A persistent gust that sends tumbleweeds skittering across U.S. 34 offers the first clue of this area's renewable energy potential. The second clue comes from the logo of an ethanol fuel pump attached to the Yuma city limits sign as motorists on the highway enter the farm town turned alternative energy mecca.
And a succession of other clues appears throughout the northeastern Colorado county: Endless acres of cornfields serving as a renewable energy feedstock. Progressive farmers willing to experiment with new technologies and crops. An aggressive economic development effort to lure alternative energy industries.
While other Colorado agricultural communities try to fend off rural flight and moribund economies, Yuma County, population 9,960, has entered the ballyhooed "new energy economy" even before Gov. Bill Ritter made it a catchphrase of his political platform.
"We've got a can-do spirit happening here," said Bob Carpio, president of Colorado Community Bank in Yuma. "It's clearly not a typical rural community. We're seeing a lot of new investment, and it looks like renewable energy is the right kind of industry for us."
Among some $200 million in projects and concepts taking place:
--A $61 million ethanol manufacturing plant under construction by Yuma Ethanol, a local investment group. The plant, just east of Yuma, will employ a peak construction work force of 180 and a permanent staff of about 40 employees earning an average wage of $40,000--50 percent higher than the county's per capita income of $26,707.
Plant backers are planning to double the facility's initial 50 million gallon annual output shortly after it opens this summer.
--Another ethanol plant across the road from Yuma Ethanol, by Dallas-based Panda Energy. Valued at more than $120 million, the plant will produce 100 million gallons of ethanol, hire as many as 500 construction workers and employ a permanent staff of 60. The company is expected to break ground on the facility this year.
The plant's output is big enough that Panda officials scrapped a previously announced plan to use cattle manure to fire boilers, fearing that not enough manure could be collected. It will use natural gas instead.
--A $14 million grain-handling, fertilizer-manufacturing and fuel-mixing complex under development east of Yuma by M&M Cooperative Inc., a local farmers group.
The co-op also is conducting a feasibility study for a refinery at the site that would make diesel fuel from crop oils.
--A $1.6 million, 900-kilowatt wind turbine proposed by the Wray School District. Annual power generation, valued at an estimated $50,000 to $100,000, would go into school district coffers. Students would conduct classroom studies on the turbine's operation.
Wind farm developer Brent Orr said the county's strong wind makes it an ideal site for utility-scale wind farms if the necessary transmission lines can be built.
--A potential demonstration plant by Fort Lupton-based PureVision Technology to gauge the commercial feasibility of producing ethanol from crop residue and waste materials, known as "cellulosic" ethanol.
Other benefits from renewable energy carry less-specific price tags but are equally important to the county's economy.
Chief among them is the effect ethanol production nationwide is having on corn prices. High demand for corn--the chief fuel for ethanol--recently has pushed corn prices to $4.50 a bushel compared with an average of $2 to $2.50 in recent years.
That's a huge boon for Yuma County, Colorado's top-producing corn county with 2005 production of 40 million bushels--nearly twice the volume of second-place Kit Carson County.
The two ethanol plants under development in Yuma County will process an estimated 55 million bushels a year, accounting for all of the county's corn production--plus more that will need to be imported.
Yet ethanol's insatiable appetite for corn and the resulting price surge has its downside for cattle feeders in Yuma County, who rely on the grain as a primary ration.
Cattle feeder and farmer Brad Rock estimates he is losing $150 to $200 per head of cattle because of high corn prices.
"Biofuels are a really good thing for Yuma County, but the growing pains are pretty painful for some of us," said Rock, who operates Box Elder Ranch near Wray with his wife, Marla. "If the price of corn stays high, you'll see fewer cattle feeders here."
Despite the specter of high corn prices, Rock and other feeders receive some benefit from ethanol production because its doughy byproduct, distillers grain, can be used in place of corn for a portion of cattle feed.
On balance, the benefits from renewable energy offset any problems, said Andrea Anderson, executive director of the Yuma County Economic Development Corp.
"We have a history of being a pioneering and progressive community," Anderson said, "and we're bringing that same approach to renewable energy."