In Greensboro: Cow power produced from a medium-size herd

Peter Gebbie checks the readings on his new methane generator. Although he admits to being slow with computers, his wife, Sandra, said Mr. Gebbie turns out to be very good with the high-tech system. Photos by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle July 25, 2012

by Joseph Gresser

GREENSBORO — On Sunday morning Peter Gebbie had finished milking.  The truck from the St. Albans co-op was loading and his hands were moving out to get the second cut of hay in.

But there was more for him to do.  He and his wife, Sandra, headed toward a new building behind one of his barns.  A sign on the door wisely warned against entering without hearing protection.  Inside an engine roared.

Mr. Gebbie grabbed a clipboard and walked around the room checking readouts at various points along a complicated series of pipes.

He looked pleased at the results.  “Eighty kilowatts,” he said.  When they first started the generator about two weeks ago, it produced only 20 kilowatts.

When it is running at full speed the methane generator will produce 150 kilowatts of power.

Switching the generator on was the culmination of a process that began in Newport a little more than five years ago at a meeting sponsored by the state Agency of Agriculture.  That meeting at the East Side Restaurant brought together dairy farmers who were interested in the process of turning manure and other organic matter into methane and eventually electricity.

At the time the Gebbies were milking 200 cows at Maplehurst Farm.  The farmers who were getting into the electricity business had herds ten times the size of his.

On Sunday, Mr. Gebbie recalled that when he first started calling firms that design and install methane digesters he was turned away.

“The guys who sold digesters laughed at you,” he said, “unless you were at least a 1,000-cow farm.”

Mr. Gebbie persisted and eventually his calls started getting returned.  He said that it seemed to him that the digester builders had worked their way through the big farmers and were ready to deal with someone his size.

While they were investigating the possibility of building a methane digester, the Gebbies doubled the size of their herd to 400 cows.

They were fortunate in having long before set up their barns with slatted floors through which the cows tread their manure and bedding.  Gravity was enough to move this fuel into the digester, a round tank with a flexible cover.

Manure will produce methane with or without special equipment, but left to nature the volatile hydrocarbon will go into the atmosphere where it is a potent greenhouse gas.

Mr. Gebbie said he has heard it has a 24 to 25 times greater effect than carbon dioxide.

The Gebbies knew that things were going well when they saw the cover on the digester begin to balloon upwards.  That indicated that gas was beginning to build up a head of pressure.

From the digester the gas goes into a scrubber which removes impurities to protect the engine of the generator.  Mr. Gebbie said he is lucky because the gas produced by his manure is low in sulfur.

From the scrubber the gas goes to the generator or, if for some reason the generator is down for a while, through an upright pipe which is set up to burn extra gas to keep it from going into the atmosphere.

Once the manure is run through the digester, it could be spread on fields.  The Gebbies have chosen to separate the liquids from the solids, spread the former and use the latter as bedding.

Levels need to be checked throughout the system. Peter Gebbie stands in front of the tank that cleans the methane before it is fed into the generator.

Sawmills used to give away sawdust, Mr. Gebbie noted.  Today they use everything, and the price of bedding is a major cost of doing business.  By producing his own bedding, Mr. Gebbie said, he can save as much as $20,000 a year.

Studies show the bedding produced by digesters reduces the incidence of mastitis and results in a lower somatic cell count, an indicator of a healthy cow, Mr. Gebbie said.

Of course, electricity is the main product of the system.  The Gebbies have a contract to supply 150 kilowatts of power to the Hardwick Electric Company through the state’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program.

They are guaranteed a price of 14 cents a kilowatt-hour, well above the current market price of four cents.  In addition they can sell Renewable Energy Credits (REC) through the Cow Power program started by Central Vermont Public Service and now under the auspices of Green Mountain Power.

Mr. Gebbie said the REC credits bring in an additional three to four cents a kilowatt-hour, less a small brokerage fee.

The system cannot operate at full capacity with only the manure produced on his farm, Mr. Gebbie said.  To get to the full 150 kilowatts, he will need to find an outside source of carbon.

Typically that means a liquid such as whey, he said.

The 150-kilowatt limit is convenient in one regard.  Power from the system can be moved on a simple single-phase line, the sort that typically serves a home.

Large scale generators on the farms in Franklin and Addison counties may generate more than a megawatt of power and require a very expensive three-phase service to move electricity off the farm.

In addition to power and bedding, the generator can also provide heat for the Gebbies’ home and milking parlor, and hot water, Mr. Gebbie said.  The potential savings could be as great as those from the bedding, but they will require substantial investment in underground pipes, he added.

The digester cost “$1.5-million and climbing,” Mr. Gebbie said.  Grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Department of Energy and the state Department of Public Service’s Clean Energy Development Fund helped pay between half and three-quarters of the cost, he added.

“Most people would like to see things paid in five years,” Mr. Gebbie said.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Why aren’t there more hydro projects?

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle, May 30, 2012

This is part one of a series of articles about hydropower.

MONTPELIER — The Legislature gave a nudge this session to a renewable source of energy that roughly 70 years ago dominated Vermont’s rivers and ponds. As recently as 1940, hydropower supplied the state with 90 percent of its power needs.

But today hydropower is seldom mentioned in the push to acquire 20 percent of Vermont’s energy needs from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2017.

“Hydropower is the forgotten stepchild of the renewable energy movement,” says Lori Barg, who owns a business in Plainfield that designs and installs small hydro systems for towns and farms, and who gave testimony for the hydro bill that was signed into law recently by Governor Peter Shumlin.

One of the co-sponsors of the bill was Northeast Kingdom Senator Vince Illuzzi of Derby. Nearly ten years ago Senator Illuzzi spearheaded a failed attempt to get the state to buy hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut River.

He has been pushing hydro ever since and, except for this year, striking out.

“It’s been a constant fight with ANR and water quality people,” he says. And in the Legislature there has been no middle ground with hydro projects, he adds: “Either you authorize them or you don’t.”

The bill that made it into law this year, S.148, intends to expedite the permit process for small and micro hydro developers. A small hydro is defined as a project that generates up to five megawatts (MW) of power, while a micro is one that is 100 kilowatts (KW) or less. There are 1,000 KW in a MW.

Estimates of Vermont potential for hydro projects are all over the map. According to the bill’s findings, they range from 25 MW to 434 MW. In a 2008 study, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) estimated there were 25 MW at 44 sites; whereas a year earlier the Department of Public Service (DPS) estimated there were 90 MW developable at 300 of the 1,200 existing dams, according to the bill’s findings.

In testimony on the bill before the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, Ms. Barg testified that Vermont has 400 MW of potential hydropower without building a single new dam.

So, the elephant in the room or the whale in the river is the question: Why isn’t hydro playing a larger, more important role in the renewable energy mix?

The reason, say a variety of sources, is the cost of permitting — a process that involves both state and federal agencies.

“Most hydroelectric projects require approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The length and cost of the process of obtaining a FERC approval do not vary significantly with the capacity of the hydroelectric project,” says the bill’s findings. “However, the ability of a hydroelectric project to absorb this cost decreases as the capacity of the project grows smaller.”

To ease the permitting cost, S.148 authorizes the DPS commissioner to enter into an agreement, or what is known as a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) with FERC that would enable Vermont agencies to prescreen proposed hydroelectric projects in the state.

The MOU would be comparable to one recently signed between Colorado and FERC “to streamline and simplify the authorization of small-scale hydropower projects.” But whereas the Colorado MOU focused mainly on agricultural irrigation canals, Vermont’s will deal with small dams and conduits.

The state must initiate negotiations with FERC by July 15, and recently the DPS assigned a staff person to the project, according to Andy Perchlik, who is the department’s director of Clean Energy Development Fund.

It may be too early to estimate how much money the new law will save those who develop small hydro projects, says Mr. Perchlik. The bill says the state will review the MOU once five projects have been permitted and are up and running.

For its part, says Mr. Perchlik, the state is expected to do “more hand holding” with developers and coordinate permit work among agencies. The department and ANR will put together a list of criteria that a project will have to meet and, once all the agencies have signed off, he adds, FERC will be able to move ahead.

Though some may see the legislation as a step forward, no one is saying it will stimulate hydro development or increase applications for small or micro hydro projects.

Since S.148 went into effect the phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook at the Department of Environmental Conservation, says Brian Fitzgerald, the department’s Streamflow Protection Coordinator.

“Realistically, there aren’t that many good projects out there,” he says.

If the MOU succeeds, Mr. Fitzgerald says the state will be able to offer “a new service” to small hydro projects. He says that by pre-screening environment issues, the state will be able to speed up the FERC review.

Still, he adds, when licensing a hydro project, the state is “allocating a public resource.” And that requires a permitting process “to be thorough and thoughtful.”

Mr. Fitzgerald says operating costs and the need to maintain minimum stream flows are the biggest obstacle for hydro developers. And while legislation to allow hydro owners to sell or net meter power back to utilities has improved the economic picture, he expects the new law will only help a few small hydro developers.

A 5 MW hydro is “a big project for Vermont,” he says.

Hydro projects are licensed for 30 years and, according to Mr. Fitzgerald, between three and five have been certified in the state during the last couple of years. But some say that the permitting process in Vermont takes so long that would-be developers get discouraged.

There are no tax credits but the state does offer grants for micro projects. Mr. Perchlik says the grants only kick in when the permits are nearly in hand.

“You need to prove you’ve got the permit,” he says.

When it comes to hydros, he adds, applications for financial aid are rare.

As the woman who founded the Plainfield business, Community Hydro, Ms. Barg believes projects should be rated initially by the impact they will have on the environment. That would enable those projects with low impact to clear the permit hurdle quicker.

She also believes there should be something like the IRS 1040 EZ form for hydro projects, which she says would make life easier for both the regulated and regulators. In her ideal list, developers would be required to go through a standard form and check off the statements that characterize their projects.

For example:

• “Utilizes for electric power generation only the water power potential of an existing dam”; or

• “Utilizes only a dam at which there is no significant existing upstream or downstream passage of fish.”

In testimony before the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, she characterized the federal licensing process as onerous and expensive, regardless of size.

Still, she notes, that the MOU signed between Colorado and FERC has expedited the permit process in the Rocky Mountain state by licensing ten projects in a year and a half.

Big hydro projects like the one at James Bay in Quebec may have given hydro an indelible black eye. Senator Illuzzi says it alienated the public opinion by displacing native people and flooding thousands of acres of land. But local hydros, he argues, are viewed more benignly.

Still, when it comes to permitting, he says developers are caught between a “chicken-egg type of thing” as to who comes first, the state or FERC?

“It’s a colossal circuit that advances nothing,” he says.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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