Three-way partnership serves up ‘green’ power

MIDDLEBURY — What happens when an historic local dairy, a hard cider giant and a major vendor of farm equipment join forces in Middlebury?
You get an abundant supply of renewable energy, of course.
As unusual as it sounds, that’s the payoff from a new association between Monument Farms Dairy, the Vermont Cider Company and Champlain Valley Equipment (CVE). Here’s the deal, in a nutshell: Monument Farms is using “lees” — the residue of the cider making process — from Vermont Hard Cider Co. to ramp up the electricity produced in its manure-to-energy equipment, and it is selling that extra power to Champlain Valley Equipment.
In using the cider residue, the dairy maximizes the efficiency of its “Cow Power” system, and it produces extra electricity beyond what it would use itself. This surplus electricity produces energy credits that it is able to sell to CVE. Without CVE, those credits would evaporate for lack of a buyer, Monument Farms Vice President Jon Rooney explained.
“The addition of the lees boosted our gas production enough so that we were accumulating credits, which we had no way to monetize,” Rooney said. “No one was paying us for the credits we are accumulating. All we do is displace kilowatts that we use, and anything in excess is just a dollar credit, basically.”
Vermont Hard Cider, through the deal, gets a local disposal option for its lees, which would otherwise have to be trucked out of the county at considerable cost.
And CVE, for it’s part, gets the satisfaction of knowing that all the power for four of its stores is being derived from a renewable energy source managed by a local dairy that happens to also be one of its major clients for farming equipment.
And did we mention that CVE is buying the electricity — metered by Monument Farms — at a slight reduction for what it would pay in regular rates, in recognition of its greater accounting chores associated with the arrangement?
“For me, this is something that’s very exciting,” CVE owner Brian Carpenter said. “We thought it was appropriate to share that these types of projects are doable within local communities, if you look outside the box.”
Carpenter had spent a long time looking for ways for his business to patch into renewable energy sources.
“We have been wanting to find a way to be responsible community members,” Carpenter said. “There has been a really strong push in Vermont for sustainable power. So we have being looking, for a couple of years, for a way to do a solar field to power our company off of solar.”
But he was concerned with the potential visual impacts of a solar farm.
“Having not found a good spot to put up a solar field, I didn’t want one right on Route 7, or on a major highway,” Carpenter said. “Personally, I object to this scenic corridor being populated with too many solar fields.”
An alternative solution practically walked through his door. It was during a conversation with Monument Farms officials that he learned the popular dairy was producing excess power through its on-site anaerobic digester — equipment that derives methane gas from cow manure to fuel an engine that drives an electric generator. The resulting energy helps serve the farm’s needs and is fed into Green Mountain Power’s electrical system for distribution to customers.
In addition to producing renewable energy, the Cow Power system also produces a solid byproduct that farmers can use as bedding for their animals.
Monument Farms officials asked Carpenter if he’d like CVE to purchase the excess power created by the dairy’s methane digester.
Carpenter was immediately intrigued.
“We had never really thought of Cow Power, quite frankly — and that’s kind of surprising, given that our single largest customer base is the commercial dairies within Vermont,” Carpenter said.
Scrutiny of CVE’s power needs revealed that it was an almost perfect match for the Monument Farms’ excess energy capacity. So Champlain Valley Equipment closed a deal for Monument Farms power to supply its store locations in Middlebury, St. Albans, Berlin and East Randolph. The deal does not include CVE’s store in the Northeast Kingdom — and that’s ironically where Carpenter had purchased extra land for a potential solar farm.
Green Mountain Power converted CVE’s power meters to reflect the purchase of Monument Farms electricity. Carpenter said CVE directly reimburses Monument Farms for its energy use. And CVE is getting a slight discount (per kilowatt hour) compared to what it would be paying for power at conventional rates, in recognition of the extra accounting work CVE is having to do as part of the purchasing arrangement, he said.
“Any extra work, in my opinion, is well offset by supporting local projects,” Carpenter said. “We want to keep things local as much as possible.”
And Monument Farms is relying on another local product to ratchet up enough power to sell to CVE. Manure alone has not fueled the anaerobic digester to its full power generating capacity. That’s where Vermont Hard Cider comes in. The manufacturer of nationally renowned Woodchuck Hard Cider must occasionally dispose of its lees, a residual product of the fermentation process. Turns out the lees is a good Cow Power fuel, Rooney noted.
“We weren’t sure of the gas production value at first, but it has proven to be a nice little boost for our digester,” Rooney said. And the lees is also not affecting the quality of the cow bedding product derived from the digester, he added.
Vermont Hard Cider sends around 12,000 gallons of lees to Monument Farms each month, according to Caitlin Stroupe, digital marketing manager for the company.
“Sustainability is one of the pillars here at Vermont Hard Cider Company,” she said of the local renewable energy collaboration. “Not only does this program recycle waste from our tanks into energy that fuels the cidery, but it allows us to contribute to the environmental efforts of our community.”
Rooney appreciates the way the plan came together.
“It makes perfect sense,” Rooney said. “There are plenty of solar fields going up with out-of-state investors. It’s real nice to see this being a mutually beneficial operation.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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