Middlebury studies energy alternatives for town

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Energy Committee is studying ways to harness renewable power from public waste and from sun shining on several municipal buildings in an effort to reduce the town’s annual $550,000 electricity bill.
Specifically, the panel is seeking more information on how bio-gas could be produced from waste at the town’s wastewater treatment plant. At the same time, the committee wants to identify the costs of installing and operating solar arrays at the Memorial Sports Center, the former sewer plant off Seymour Street, and the current wastewater treatment plant off Industrial Avenue.
“The conversations that are going on are preliminary in nature and we are trying to scope what it would be wise to invest some town dollars in to take it to the next level of feasibility analysis,” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington.
It was around six months ago that Middlebury formed its energy committee, according to Assistant Town Manager Joe Colangelo. That panel — made up of citizens and public officials — has been charged with looking at ways to develop new energy sources while conserving existing ones.
Middlebury began exploring the feasibility of solar arrays at municipal sites after the town of Norwich launched such an initiative. Norwich plans to site a solar energy project at its garbage transfer station property, according to Dunnington.
“The notion that a community could do this and net-meter solar (photo-voltaic) power was of interest to us,” Dunnington said.
The town solicited proposals from companies interested in determining whether Middlebury could realistically host solar arrays at one or more of its facilities. South Royalton-based ReKnew Energy Systems responded, offering to research the feasibility of solar installations at various local sites.
Town officials had hoped to finance the ReKnew Energy Systems study through a grant from the state’s Clean Energy Development Fund. But that fund has stopped awarding grants for solar feasibility studies, according to Dunnington.
“That means that the town would have to spend between $5,000 and $7,000 to evaluate (the solar projects),” Dunnington said.
Undaunted, Middlebury officials compared notes and studied the town-owned sites to determine how solar arrays might be positioned for maximum effect.
Dunnington said three municipal sites showed particular promise — the Memorial Sports Center and the present and former wastewater treatment plant properties.
“The Memorial Sports Center has a really perfect south-oriented roof, at the right angle,” Dunnington said. “But structurally, I don’t know if it can hold a lot of (solar) panels. Maybe it can.”
The past and present treatment plants are both equipped with three-phase power connections that are necessary for renewable energy transmission, town officials noted.
Middlebury department leaders penciled in spots on the three properties where solar arrays could be installed. The next step for the energy committee will be to find the $5,000 to $7,000 it will take to study the three sites in-depth, in order to determine the cost of the solar arrays and how long it would take for the project to pay for itself. That funding decision will need to be made by the selectboard. Supporters of the project hope the town could fund the study with anticipated savings this year in the town’s heating fuel account.
WASTE BI-GAS AS FUEL
Meanwhile, the energy committee is exploring the larger concept of generating bio-gas from waste at the sewer plant. This would require installation of equipment at the plant that would allow it to harvest methane gas from sludge and other waste. That gas could then be burned to make electricity. It would in essence be a large-scale version of the “Cow Power” project being undertaken at several Vermont farms, including the Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport.
Deborah Sachs, director of the Burlington-based Alliance for Climate Action, helped spur Middlebury officials to think about the renewable energy potential of the wastewater treatment plant.
Sachs linked the town of Middlebury with a University of Vermont graduate intern, Jason McCune-Sanders, who worked this past summer with Middlebury wastewater treatment plant superintendent Bob Wells.
“He sampled our municipal sludge, and took samples of biosolid wastes from food industries that aren’t already recycled or reused,” Dunnington said.
McCune-Sanders shared his research with the environmental consulting firm of Fuss & O’Neill, which determined — based on waste volume and other factors — that a bio-gas operation at the wastewater treatment plant could produce around $100,000 in electricity per year. The plant currently uses about $200,000 worth of electricity annually.
“You are saving half your energy bill,” Colangelo said.
Colangelo added it will be critical to determine — in both the bio-gas and solar array projects — whether the energy savings ends up being less than the annual bond payments for the required capital improvements.
“That’s one of the things the feasibility studies would show,” Colangelo said. “If we are saving $150,000 per year and we paying $125,000 per year in debt service, well that’s a net benefit for the town. You have the clean technology, and we are paying less for energy.”
Middlebury Energy Coordinator Laura Asermily is helping to put together research on the bio-gas and solar array plans.
“We are doing our homework, getting the best site information and the costs,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.
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