July 30, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — Addison County farming and forestry industries can play a key role in achieving a national goal to produce 25 percent of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2025, local agriculture leaders say.
Middlebury dairy farmer Bob Foster and Harvey Smith, state executive director of the Farm Service Agency, stressed that 25 percent is a conservative goal given that the United States currently gets about 6 percent of its energy from renewable sources, like wind, solar and biofuels.
The two spoke at a meeting hosted by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC) on Thursday. They agreed that just striving toward the goal could have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the local economy.
“I feel really good that we’re on the forefront of being able to develop something here in Addison County and in the state of Vermont that will really benefit us all, reducing our environmental impact, our air quality impact and also generating economic development,” Smith said.
The 25x’25 Alliance, which was formed by a national group of farmer leaders in 2004, has garnered a loud chorus of support from political leaders. It is backed by Vermont’s entire congressional delegation, Gov. James Douglas and the Vermont Legislature, in addition to the governors of 20 other states.
In Addison County, fuels that could be used for renewable energy production range from biomass like grass pellets and wood chips, to ethanol, methane and even algae, Foster said.
Foster was recruited to the national 25x’25 Alliance steering committee to offer a dairy perspective. He had been working with anaerobic digestion — producing energy from methane — since the early ’80s, so the initiative was a “perfect fit,” he said. Now, with the help of a researcher from Montpelier, his Lower Foote Street farm is developing an algae reactor, a device that uses algae to filter the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions and then makes the algae available as a biofuel itself.
Smith, a New Haven resident and former dairy farmer and state representative, got involved in the 25x’25 initiative early on, after attending a training program on rural economies through the Vermont legislature. The statistics on rural economics were sobering. For Smith, the potential to stimulate Addison County’s local economy was a good enough reason to endorse the alliance.
“Almost every rural county across the United States was decreasing in their ability to generate dollars,” Smith said at Thursday’s meeting. “They were decreasing in population, economic growth… So I came back with the idea that I wanted to find some answers to that.”
Some of the answers lie in renewable energy projects like Central Vermont Public Service’s Cow Power program, which uses the manure from area dairy farms to fire electric generators.
One problem with this program, however, is that it costs each farm up to $70,000 to cover the cost of engineering, meaning only farms with more than 500 cows can feasibly participate, Foster and Smith noted.
“One of my big talking points for the national group is that we need to scale down as much as we can,” Foster said. “And that’s something that we in Vermont can really contribute to, to focus on the smaller scale.”
Smith added that farms in the state are already looking into this.
“A company in the state is looking at a system where you could do (the anaerobic digestion) in 50-cow increments,” he said. “If it’s going to be economically feasible in the end, I don’t know, but at least the research is going into that to accommodate more of the average size farms in the state.”
Foster noted that the 25x’25 Alliance, now that it has ample support, has entered the phase of ironing out logistics, determining how conversions to renewables will actually take place.
“We have to identify the problems before we dream about the solutions,” he said.
But the rewards, including slowing the effects of global warming and decreasing dependency on foreign oil, will be plentiful if the community works together, he said.
“Each of us, we’re going to have to change the way we do things, as well,” Smith said. “There are going to be trade-offs. We many not want that transmission line in our backyard, or we may not want to look at a windmill somewhere. But what are the alternatives?”
“It should be a non-partisan issue,” he added. “We’ve got to solve this problem. We’re behind the curve; we’ve got to catch up.”
The ACRPC plans to continue the community dialogue about 25x’25 at a series of informal meetings in the coming weeks.