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The Commons

Lights on for a new generator in Brattleboro

Project to turn waste into energy, and fuel a greenhouse and aquaculture facility in the process

Originally published in The Commons issue #73 (Wednesday, October 27, 2010).

BRATTLEBORO—With the click of a laptop computer, the future arrived in Brattleboro on Monday.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy was at the keyboard to fire up a 250-kilowatt generator that takes methane gas from the former Windham Solid Waste Management District landfill on Old Ferry Road and turns it into electricity. Central Vermont Public Service is buying the electricity made at the site, which it estimates is enough to power 300 homes.

But that is only the beginning of what Carbon Harvest Energy has planned.

When the Burlington-based Carbon Harvest completes what it calls the Brattleboro Renewable Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Project, the waste heat from the generator will be used to heat a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse and aquaculture facility that will provide organic food to local markets and the Vermont Foodbank.

A commercial-scale algae farm is also planned for developing other products, including biofuels and a sustainable fish feed replacement and nutraceutical applications. The whole project has an estimated price tag of about $2 million, and Carbon Harvest estimates it will show a return on the investment in about five years.

“For the last 200 years, we’ve operated on a linear model of extract and deplete, consume and waste,” said Don McCormick, Carbon Harvest’s founder and designer of the project, at Monday’s ceremony. “We need to leave this model and move toward a circular model that is sustainable and wastes nothing.”

Generating energy from decomposing waste is nothing new in Brattleboro. Back in the 1980s, the 30-acre landfill was one of the first in the nation to harness methane for electric generation. But other forms of energy was cheaper back then, and as a result, there were few takers for landfill power. The plant fell into disuse and taken offline in the 1990s.

Now, CVPS is buying the landfill’s power under Vermont’s new feed-in tariff program, which requires the state’s utilities to buy a percentage of electricity from renewable sources at above-market rates.

“You wouldn’t have this project without the feed-in tariff,” said Rep. Sarah Edwards, P-Brattleboro, a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. “This program provides the seed money for renewable energy projects.”

‘Totally integrated system’

Right now, the waste heat from the generator is going up the smokestack. Within a few months, it will be sent instead to a greenhouse, which will grow 100 tons of organic vegetables and raise 25 tons of fish year-round for the Vermont Foodbank and local markets.

“We won’t be using any chemicals or fertilizers,” said McCormick. “We will have a totally integrated system. In nature, every single ending is the beginning of something else, and nature never, ever wastes anything.”

For example, nutrient-rich water from the recirculating aquaculture system will be filtered and then recycled as fertilizer for plants grown hydroponically, a technology known as “aquaponics.” This water will also be used, along with carbon dioxide from the power plant, for a research project to grow algae for biofuels and feed.

McCormick said the Brattleboro facility will also serve as green technology research center that will be used by the University of Vermont and UVM Extension, Dartmouth College, Marlboro College and other institutions.

Besides marking the first phase of the Brattleboro project, Monday’s event was designed to also salute the partners who helped secure its funding, such as the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund, the Vermont Economic Development Authority, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and the town of Brattleboro.

“This was not a ‘cookie-cutter’ project,” said McCormick. “It took a lot of vision and a lot of collaboration to do this.”

And one key part of the collaboration was Leahy, who secured funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for the project.

“This is the kind of responsible energy project that we need,” he said. “I love the idea of Vermonters blending together the benefits of two of our strengths – organic agriculture and renewable energy — so we might be a model for others to follow.”

As for vision, Will Raap provided that. The founder of Gardener Supply Co. and the Intervale Center in Burlington was an early adopter of sustainable agricultural practices. His Green Business Incubator got involved with Carbon Harvest early on.

“This project can be the catalyst for the creation of a sustainable economy,” Raap said, “What is really cool about this project is that it’s being done at a place that was already an innovator in turning waste into energy. Taking waste management, energy production and agriculture and combining it all into one integrated system is a great idea.”

But for all the futuristic ideas involved in Carbon Harvest’s project, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee said it is really just the continuation of a long Vermont tradition.

“The history of agriculture in Vermont is one of adapting,” he said. “This is really the old Vermont model of use everything, waste nothing and take our ingenuity to come up with ways to extend the growing season and keep producing food throughout the year.”

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