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Carbon Harvest files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy

After less than three years, a cutting edge renewable energy and agriculture project goes bust

BRATTLEBORO—It opened with great fanfare in October 2010, a futuristic $2 million project that sought to grow vegetables, make bio-diesel from algae, and raise fish from the power and heat generated by the electric generator powered by methane gas from a closed landfill.

Two and a half years later, the greenhouses are empty, the fish are gone, and the company that built and ran the facility alongside the Windham Solid Waste Management District on Old Ferry Road is bankrupt.

Burlington-based Carbon Harvest Energy LLC filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Burlington on April 23.

The amount of money that public and private investors lost on the project is still to be determined. On its filing papers, Carbon Harvest lists assets of up to $50,000, and liabilities that range from $1 million to $10 million. It estimates that it has 33 creditors, and that funds will be available for distribution to unsecured creditors.

According to Vermont Business Magazine (VBM), Steve Magowan, who has served as Carbon Harvest president since founder and former president Don McCormick resigned in January, said that he does not expect to get any investor money back.

The only revenue-producing part of the Brattleboro complex is the electric generator, which Magowan said is producing only $11,000 to $12,000 a month.

Two chunks of state money were earmarked for the project, but never distributed. Carbon Harvest was due to receive Vermont Employment Growth Incentives (VEGI) totaling $569,000, and a $325,000 grant from the Vermont Community Development Program.

The Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) did loan the project $360,000. VEDA director Jo Bradley told VBM that she expects to get at least most of the money back either through ongoing operations of the electric generating facility, or through its sale.

“It was a very interesting and innovative project,” Bradley said. “It was undercapitalized and a very complicated business to operate.”

Vermont Development Secretary Lawrence Miller expressed similar sentiments.

“The issue, as I understand it, is that they had gone along fairly well — the (electric) facility at the landfill down in Brattleboro — but that they had gone on with other projects and over-extended operationally,” he told VBM. “Adding the fish component to the methane generation project added complexity to the operation.”

The town of Brattleboro signed off on a $40,000 loan through the Small Business Administration. Town Manager Barbara Sondag said Tuesday that about $25,000 had been repaid. “The town’s SBA program has been very successful, with few defaults,” she said.

Carbon Harvest started running into financial trouble last fall, when McCormick announced that the company had to furlough six of its 11 workers. The secondary operations — the greenhouse and the fish farm — were closed.

Research into using the by-products of the greenhouse and the fish farm to grow algae to make biodiesel continued. VBM reported that Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, said the VSJF provided $215,000 for the algae/bio-diesel component, which was completed at the end of April.

That money was funded through the U.S. Department of Energy.

The VSJF wanted to make sure that the research got completed after the business failed. “We thought this was really going to be an important project for us,” Kahler told VBM. “We wanted to salvage what we could salvage out of it.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #201 (Wednesday, May 1, 2013).

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