by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
December 28, 2010
TURNING WASTE INTO ENERGY IN VERMONT
BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- While too many of our leaders in Washington pretend that global warming, peak oil and the growing numbers of the hungry in our nation are just figments of the liberal imagination, I recently got a glimpse of a project that, when fully operational, will take care of all three problems and provide jobs in the process.
How? A Vermont company called Carbon Harvest Energy is running a 250-kilowatt generator that takes methane gas from the former Windham Solid Waste Management District landfill in Brattleboro and turns it into electricity. A local utility is buying the electricity made at the site, which it estimates is enough to power 300 homes.
Landfill gas is the natural by-product of the decomposition of solid waste in landfills and is comprised primarily of methane - a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, municipal solid waste landfills are the second largest human-generated source of methane emissions in the United States.
A project like this one not only prevents emissions of methane, but uses these gases to produce energy and other by-products. But turning a dangerous gas produced by landfills into energy is only the beginning of what is planned for what Carbon Harvest calls the Brattleboro Renewable Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Project.
When finished in the next year or so, the waste heat from the generator will be used to heat a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse and aquaculture facility that will grow 100 tons of organic vegetables and raise 25 tons of fish year-round for local markets and the Vermont Foodbank, which supplies food for the shelves of soup kitchens around the state.
A commercial-scale algae farm is also planned for developing other products, including biofuels, a sustainable fish-feed replacement and nutraceutical applications. The facility will also serve as a green technology research center to be used by the University of Vermont and UVM Extension, Dartmouth College, Marlboro College and other institutions.
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. The company has been investigating other former landfills around New England and New York to duplicate what they hope to start in Brattleboro.
"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 the project's grand opening last month. "We need to leave this model and move toward a circular model that is sustainable and wastes nothing."
For example, nutrient-rich water from the recirculating aquaculture system will be filtered and recycled as fertilizer for plants grown hydroponically, a technology known as "aquaponics." This water will also be used, along with CO2 from the power plant, for a research project to grow algae for biofuels and feed.
It took a lot of planning, plus public and private investment, to make this project happen. As Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who secured funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for the project, said, "This is the kind of responsible energy project that we need. 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."
Projects like these are likely to be endangered, as the incoming Republicans to Washington want nothing to do with small scale, local innovation that benefits communities instead of multinational corporations. But this is the type of innovation that is needed to create a sustainable economy.
Taking waste management, energy production and agriculture and combining it all into one integrated system is a great idea. And, because of the size of the project and the extent of how every element is so tightly integrated, it has a better chance to succeed. But in a way, as Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee told me, it is really just the continuation of a long tradition in this state.
"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."
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.