Vermont Coffee Company embraces green energy

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Coffee Company fans now have an extra reason to feel good about savoring their favorite brand of java.
The Middlebury company boasts that it is now the first U.S. coffee roaster to use 100-percent renewable biogas to roast its coffee, sourcing both thermal and electric energy from renewable methane.
“We firmly believe our customers are going to appreciate this, that they’ll recognize it as a good thing,” company founder and CEO Paul Ralston said during a recent interview. “It’s not a small thing for us. It took a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of money.”
It’s an effort that began three years ago, when Vermont Coffee launched a more than $1 million investment in new, energy efficient roasting technology.
“We worked with a company in California and over years of refinements, we’ve been able to reduce, by over 70 percent, the amount of gas that it takes to roast a pound of coffee,” Ralston said. “So regardless of what the fuel source was, it was a big step in efficiency.”
Ralston explained that efficiency led to an important second step: The ability to pay a premium for methane and biogas to ensure its manufacturing process is solely dependent on renewable energy.
Vermont Coffee sources its electricity through Green Mountain Power’s “Cow Power” program. This power is derived from anaerobic digesters operated by Addison County dairy farms that extract methane gas from cow manure and convert it into electricity.
At the same time, the company is now buying renewable biogas from the Quebec-based company, EBI Énergie Inc.
Energy savings derived from the more efficient roasting equipment is offsetting the higher cost (117 percent more than conventional propane) for both the Canadian renewable biogas and the Cow Power electricity, which comes at a 33-percent premium, according to company officials.
“Both of these programs are more expensive, and with our investment in efficiency, we’re not going to have to pass those costs on to our customers,” Ralston said.
Moving to renewable energy is very much in line with the company’s philosophy.
“The idea is, long-term, we believe our customers are going to care about this, that they’ll see this as a really positive step and something they can feel good about,” Ralston said. “They already feel good about the coffee. Now they get to feel good about how we’re roasting it.”
Vermont Coffee currently employs 35 full- and part-time workers and has been growing at around a 20-percent clip annually. It is now the largest whole-bean organic coffee company in the Northeast, according to Ralston. Its organic coffee is sold in chain grocery stores, local markets and food co-ops throughout the Northeast. Products are also sold nationally via the company’s online store at vermontcoffeecompany.com.
But the company is still a David among the nation’s handful of Goliath coffee manufacturers. Vermont Coffee officials consistently look at ways to distinguish their brand from the Starbucks of the world. And going 100-percent renewable energy is one of those ways.
“We can do this because we are a small company,” Ralston explained. “It costs more for this fuel. A large company is never going to do that, because they’re going to have shareholders who would say, ‘No, we don’t want to spend more money if we don’t have to.’”
Vermont Coffee and other Middlebury businesses are planning for bigger potential advances on the renewable energy front.
For example: The possibility of building an anaerobic digester plant in the town’s industrial park to supply locally produced biogas. Business leaders are working on the concept with state officials and the Addison County Economic Development Corp., according to Ralston. In basic terms, equipment would be installed at participating farms to separate solids and liquids from cow manure. The liquids would be collected and delivered to a facility in the industrial park. There, the methane gas would be extracted, scrubbed, and brought up to pipeline-grade gas.
Eventually, food scraps could also be added to the mix.
“The customers would be the small and medium farms,” said Sue Hoxie, Vermont Coffee’s general manager for marketing. “The smaller farms can’t invest in all that (biogas) technology.”
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Foods & Markets has a “phosphorous innovation challenge,” through which groups are being encouraged to make pitches for projects able to remove phosphorous from the waste stream. The state will offer financial help to the most promising projects.
A local anaerobic digester would produce many benefits, according to Ralston. It would take phosphorous out of manure, provide a renewable energy source, generate a high-quality fertilizer, and create a new income stream for farmers.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Ralston said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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