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Grand-Thinking Va. Mayor Seeks Town's Energy Independence

Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch tours the Fauquier County landfill, where he wants to build a $30 million power and ethanol plant fueled by trash, agricultural waste, manure and other materials.
Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch tours the Fauquier County landfill, where he wants to build a $30 million power and ethanol plant fueled by trash, agricultural waste, manure and other materials. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007

George B. Fitch has always aimed high. As mayor of Warrenton, he has increased services while dramatically reducing taxes. He mounted a spirited campaign for governor in 2005. And years before, he founded the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, whose story of beating the odds was adapted into a Disney film.

But his current plan might be his most ambitious undertaking yet: to make his rural town of 8,000 residents energy independent before he leaves office in 2010.

The keystone of what Fitch calls his "low-carbon diet" is to build a $30 million plant at the county dump, which would chew up garbage, construction waste, agricultural residue, manure and other materials referred to as "biomass" and spin it into electricity and ethanol.

He reckons that his plant would generate 10 million gallons of ethanol a year and enough electricity to power every house in town with minimal greenhouse gas emissions and no use of fossil fuels.

All of this he hopes to accomplish without raising taxes or taking on debt. Moreover, he said, it could earn the town a modest profit.

"You don't have to be a big fan of Al Gore to realize that this is critical to our community and our national security," said Fitch, 59, a self-described fiscal conservative who ran for governor on the Republican ticket. "This is a sound and necessary investment that will ultimately pay dividends."

Fitch has developed a strategy to fund the project, aligning it with federal priorities to increase the chances of getting grants and loan guarantees. He plans to aggressively pursue private businesses and large energy and oil companies to invest in the project.

It is part of a larger Green Warrenton initiative, which includes instituting environmentally friendly building standards and using solar power and other technologies on government buildings.

If all goes well, Fitch said, a new plant could be up and running in three years, just in time for the end of his term. He has said he will not run again.

The town plans to launch a $50,000 feasibility study this spring. Although many industry specialists have seen promise in Fitch's bold idea, the mayor acknowledges that there are many unanswered questions, including whether the project is economically viable and whether the technology will work.

The unlikely initiative has already stirred some excitement in rural Fauquier County, where Warrenton lies, about 50 miles west of the District -- but the residents of this solidly Republican farming community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains don't want to be called "environmentalists."

"My idea of an environmentalist is somebody who wears Birkenstocks and carries a knapsack and has too-long hair and spends his free time working for the Sierra Club," said John "Sparky" Lewis, a longtime Warrenton Town Council member. "But I have a great respect for the land, and I think we could all be better stewards of it."

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