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A Monument to Eco-Mindedness

Some cities trumpet their skyscrapers. Others, their coliseums and ballparks. But few cities have ever flaunted a grain silo, likely because few have ever considered the edifice something to brag about.


Until yesterday, that is, when the city of Takoma Park - that small, nuclear-free municipality that so often marches to the beat of a different activist - proudly unveiled a 25-foot-tall, "first in the world" urban grain silo.


The spindly-legged silo will hold 21 tons of organically fertilized, no-tilled corn, fuel to heat the dozen homes of the Save Our Sky Home-Heating Cooperative. It also will help fight what cooperative members call the 21st century's most pressing problem: the scourge of global warming.


"We're the pioneers," Mike Tidwell declared yesterday after a ceremony at the city's public works compound, which is where the corrugated-metal cylinder has been incongruously grounded, miles and miles form the nearest cornfield.


Collectively, the pioneers expect to keep more than 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over the next year by switching from natural gas and electric heat.

"This is not just a wacky thing," Tidwell said. "Every jurisdiction, big or small, urban or suburban, "should start thinking about a place (it) could put a corn silo."


The story of how the silo came to Takoma Park starts with a story Tidwell was researching for the Washington Post in fall 2001 on the impact of global warming on the travel industry. He read the scientific reports, considered the projections of hotter climates and higher seas, and became utterly convinced "and totally freaked out" by the looming disaster.


Overnight, he switched from freelance journalism to global activism and founded the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He convinced his wife, a nutritionist, that they should take out a $7,500 home-equity loan and convert their two-story 1915 house into the most energy-efficient habitat possible. They installed solar-electric panels, purchased a solar hot-water system, screwed in new energy-conserving light bulbs.

Then he suggested buying a corn-burning stove to heat the home. "Her face went pale," he remembered.


But she quickly became a true believer, and over the last year, as hundreds have trooped through Tidwell's cozy abode on tours, others have come around, too. Neighbors also bought stoves, and they banded together to haul tons of dried, shelled corn from their farmer-supplier in Mount Airy.


The novelty of making corn runs wore out fast. At which point the light bulb (the energy-efficient one) went on again.


"We needed a corn filling station," Tidwell said.


Cooperative members persuaded a stove manufacturer, dealer and the climate action network to front the $4,000 that a silo and its concrete pad would cost. They persuaded the city to allow it to be sited in the valley of the public works compound. And when they couldn't get liability insurance on the structure - not even from that company called State Farm - the city agreed to accept the silo as a gift and cover it through its municipal policy.


"This is something the city can do easily to support a worthy cause," said council member Joy Austin-Lane, who just this week ordered her own corn-burning stove. "There's no better way to support something than to put your money where your mouth is."


Advocates say corn as a fuel is cleaner and less expensive than virtually all others, as well as a perpetually renewable resource. With such positive public relations, the local converts hope that dozens more families will join them in the coming year. If that necessitates a second urban grain silo, so much the better.


But what slogan to put on the first one? Apparently, that has caused debate. Nothing too negative, nothing to cataclysmic.


Maybe something like, "It's cool to burn corn," Tidwell explained. "We want to put a global warming message on it that's upbeat."
 

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