A pioneer town reinventing how we harness energy

The city of Fort Collins sits along the eastern foothills of Colorado’s Front Range, where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. Founded as a way station for caravans heading west on the Overland Trail, today it draws pioneers of science and engineering eager to blaze new paths in the energy industry.

One such is Manoj Sinha, who moved the global headquarters of his energy startup, Husk Power Systems, from his home of Patna, India, to Fort Collins. Husk develops micro-grids that use rice husks to power villages in India and Tanzania.

Small restaurant at night (Husk Power Systems)
The mini power plants made by Manoj Sinha’s company, Husk Power Systems, allow this restaurant to sell refrigerated items at night. (Husk Power Systems)

“The ecosystem that Colorado provides is quite unique,” Sinha said. He was looking for a place where Husk — which aims to provide affordable, sustainable power to millions — had access to world-class talent, capital and a network linking the company to cutting-edge energy research and development. Husk will be using $20 million in investment from foreign firms to hire executives and technical staff in the U.S.

Husk landed at the Powerhouse, home of the Colorado State University Energy Institute, a hub for research on international energy challenges.

Since the city government of Fort Collins partnered with industry leaders and Colorado State University to create the institute in 1991, some 18 startups have launched from the Powerhouse. One is Envirofit International, which leveraged the talent and research in Fort Collins to reduce toxic emissions from wood-burning cookstoves and which is now the largest manufacturer of clean cookstoves for the developing world.

Ian Skor said his startup, Sandbox Solar, benefits from Fort Collins’ utility infrastructure and the nearby technology companies and energy institutes. Skor’s co-founder, Andrew Lyle, values working in a community of people who are taking “the long look” at what energy will look like in the future. “The city actively courts these kinds of companies,” he said.

Jeff Muhs, associate director of the Energy Institute, sees potential for the institute to change energy production, storage and distribution in the next decade through its work on solar power, battery development and methane-leak detection technology.

Building with solar panels situated near river (Sandbox Solar)
Sandbox Solar has expanded the number of available energy sources for hundreds of Coloradans. (Sandbox Solar)

In 2015, the Smithsonian Institution named Fort Collins its most current “Place of Invention” in a permanent exhibit on the history of American innovation at the National Museum of American History.

Sinha hopes this innovation will transfer from Fort Collins to customers in Africa and Asia, where Husk wants to grow from operating 75 mini-grids to 300 mini-grids in the near future. Muhs connected Sinha with behavioral economics professors at Colorado State University who will help Husk expand its market to places without energy access.

“We’re trying to generate demand from customers where we have to promote what we call productive uses of power,” Sinha said.