In fall 2015, Green Mountain Power announced its plan to build a biodigester facility in St. Albans Town. It was supposed to take in manure from three area farms, as well as food waste from the region, and convert it into energy. It was also going to help reduce manure runoff into Lake Champlain. So what happened?
VPR's Did It Work? series looks at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.
First of all, you may be wondering: "Wait, what even is a biodigester?"
A biodigester generation facility takes organic waste and transforms it into a source of energy. It does this through the process of anaerobic digestion — which, put simply, is when bacteria consume organic matter and emit biogases like methane, which can then be converted into usable energy.
Although Green Mountain Power had been involved with digesters for years through their Cow Power program, this one they announced in 2015 would have been the first fully owned and operated by the utility. In fact, the company hoped this would be the first of five community digesters.
The project was going to cost $8 million to put together. According to GMP's statements at the time, the digester was going to "generate enough renewable electricity to power about 700 homes a year" and "reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking over 1,000 cars off the Vermont roads a year."
GMP said the digester was also going to decrease the amount of phosphorus pollution in the St. Albans Bay by nearly one-third, which is why then-selectboard member David McWilliams voted in favor of the project.
"I did vote for it because of removing the phosphorus. ... If you go down to the bay, during the summer we've had blue-green algae. That's caused by runoff from farms," McWilliams said.
If everything went according to plan, construction was going to begin in summer 2016.
In May 2016, Green Mountain Power filed a letter with the Public Service Board (which today is known as the Public Utility Commission) to suspend the project so they could "make certain design changes in response to concerns raised in the proceedings."
Some locals were pleased — like Tim Camisa, president of St. Albans-based Vermont Organics Reclamation.
"It was about being sexy to say we're affecting water quality ... when in fact, that was greenwashing," Camisa said to VPR recently.
When GMP started the process to build the digester back in late 2015, Camisa was one of several community members who spoke out in opposition to the project. He was worried about how the digester's biogas emissions might impact air quality, and the potential for spills into nearby Jewett Brook.
Camisa was also concerned about the Abenaki artifacts that were discovered on the proposed digester site. In the initial phases of the project, however, a team from the Northeast Archaeological Research Center took care of that.
As Gemma Hudgell, the assistant director of archaeology at the center, told VPR: "We completed everything that would be required to make sure the project didn't have any impact."
Nevertheless, Camisa hired an attorney and met with Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell in the early days of the project to discuss his concerns. Powell said she recalls this meeting, but that talking with Camisa did not deter the project.
"We then provided data and information that showed that the [Camisa's] concerns were actually all dealt with and were not ultimately a concern at all," Powell said. "I think it made us stronger."
So then, why did the St. Albans digester project falter? It comes down to two main reasons:
- Local pushback, and
- Bureaucratic quagmire
According to Powell, the project met opposition from existing fertilizer dealers in the area, since the digester's byproducts would have been a new source of fertilizer.
She also said working with multiple state agencies — like the Department of Public Service, the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture — is slow and challenging. As Powell put it: "Good things take time."
Plus, there were supposed to be three farms that would have supplied manure to the digester — but one of them dropped out.
Then there were those like Camisa, who resisted the project because of concerns about its design and location. Specifically, they wanted more assurance from GMP that the digester was not going to be a source of air pollution, that precautions would be taken to prevent spills, and that it truly would fulfill the promise of phosphorus reduction in the lake.
They asked GMP to address those concerns, and when GMP filed with the Public Service Board to suspend the project, it was so they could "make certain design changes in response to concerns raised in the proceedings."
The utility has not moved on from that point.
Nearly five years after the initial announcement, there is no digester in Saint Albans. The cornfield on Dunsmore Road where the digester was going to be is still just that: a cornfield.
The original project as it was proposed has not happened, and it doesn't seem like it's going to. That's even after GMP put $2.2 million into the initial phases, most of which — $1.8 million — will be passed onto ratepayers.
In an email to VPR on Aug. 21, the utility said the project "could not go forward as originally proposed in St. Albans, even after various revisions to make it work."
Although the digester in St. Albans has not happened, Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell said something similar is definitely possible in the future.
"Whether or not it will be in the St. Albans basin part of Vermont ... or another part of Vermont where there’s also significant challenges, is yet to be decided," Powell said. "But yes."
In fact, there's a digester that will be built soon in Salisbury — by Vanguard Renewables, not GMP — which will take in food waste and manure, and generate natural gas.
GMP's Energy-Generating Community Biodigester In St. Albans Town ... [drumroll / mobile users flip your phone] ...
While we hear a lot about new initiatives or funding when first announced, it's not always as easy to figure out whether they lived up to their promises down the line — and if they were a good use of public money. In VPR's Did It Work? series, we're following up at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.