BioCycle Magazine

Farm digester evolution in Vermont

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

In the fall of 2012, Brian Jones of Joneslan Farm in Hyde Park, Vermont spread the first load of manure that had gone through the farm’s new anaerobic digester. “It didn’t smell at all,” recalls Jones. “And we’ve been told that the nitrogen in the digested manure is more available to the plants we grow.”

When the Joneslan Farm digester went on line in late Spring 2012, it became the 15th operating digester in the state of Vermont. Since that time, several more digesters have come on line or are in construction (see for most current data). Like projects in other states, Vermont dairy farmers have been able to utilize federal funds for digester construction, primarily from U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS), as well as the renewable energy stimulus dollar grant program (Sec. 1603 Treasury grants) that expired at the end of 2011.

But unlike other states, farm digester projects in Vermont were able to tap into a utility-funded grant program that was created as a result of an insurance settlement related to the sale of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to Entergy Nuclear. The utility, Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS), started the Renewable Development Fund (RDF) in 2004, primarily to help finance utility interconnections. The RDF program also included funds for technical assistance related to digester selection and operation and feasibility studies to evaluate interconnection options. Also in 2004 CVPS created its Cow Power program where customers opt in to pay a premium of $.04/kilowatt hour (kWh) on renewably-produced power. In turn, CVPS (renamed Green Mountain Power after merging with that utility in 2012) pays farms a premium of $.04 for each kWh they deliver to the grid.

In 2006, Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee, LLC requested permission from the utility regulating body, Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) to increase power output from the nuclear plant and to store high-level radioactive waste on-site. The PBS agreed to the request but required Entergy to fund a renewable energy development program. This funding — administered through a “Clean Energy Development Fund” (CEDF) created by the state legislature — could be used “to increase the development and deployment of cost effective and environmentally sustainable electric power sources.” The first few grants targeted three-phase interconnections; grants for later projects were unspecified in terms of use.

A year earlier, in June 2005, Vermont’s Sustainably Priced Energy Development (SPEED) Program was enacted by the Vermont legislature. The goal of the SPEED program was to “promote development of in-state energy sources that use renewable fuels (SPEED resources) to ensure that to the greatest extent possible the economic benefits of these new energy sources flow to the Vermont economy in general and to the rate paying citizens of the state in particular,” according to the SPEED website. SPEED established a goal that 20 percent of total statewide electric retail sales annually must be generated by SPEED resources that constitute new renewable energy, starting in 2017.

In May 2009, the Vermont legislature passed the Vermont Energy Act (Act 45) that significantly modified a number of provisions in the SPEED Program. Act 45 created the feed-in tariff Standard Offer Program (SOP) and Standard Offer Contracts for SPEED resources of less than 2.2 MW. The SOP is designed to encourage development of SPEED resources using a variety of different renewable technologies. The Act establishes default prices for the standard offer for different technologies, calculated to allow developers of renewable power purchased through the SPEED program to recover their costs plus a return on their investment. The original rate for digester projects was initially set at $0.16/kWh for a contract term of 20 years. A subsequent rate setting lowered the farm digester rate to $0.14/kWh for 20 years. (Under SPEED, farmers with anaerobic digesters can retain ownership of the environmental attributes created by their projects.)

In addition to the incentives just described, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (AAFM), through its Best Management Practices program, has provided grants to assist with upfront digester construction costs as well as costs for solids separators, and manure storage and transfer. The grants top out at $75,000. Funds for those grants were monies allocated by the Vermont legislature for water quality projects on farms. “We just learned that at least 10 percent of the manure generated in the state of Vermont goes through an anaerobic digester,” says Stephanie Congo, an agricultural engineer with AAFM. “And Vermont has one of the higher per capita number of digesters in the U.S. compared to the overall number of dairies in the state.” Congo notes that January 2013 statistics indicate Vermont has 993 milking dairies with about 134,000 milking dairy cows.

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