Editorial: Energy project shows promise, once connected to the grid

The Recorder, October 4, 2017

The Melnick family of Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield has been working for more than four years to set up an electricity generator that eats cow manure and industrial food waste. The anaerobic digester produces methane gas that can heat the Mill Village Road farm’s buildings and that powers a 1-megawatt generator. And the waste byproduct is a material that can be used for bedding for the dairy farm’s 500 Holsteins.

The $5 million digester has been built with government loans, grants and private capital. Those loans and grants are to encourage a system that turns a problem — organic waste the state doesn’t want to bury in landfills — into energy that doesn’t involve fracking or drilling.

For the farmers, it’s a proverbial win-win-win. They turn manure and food waste into energy and bedding for themselves and make money selling excess electricity to the Eversource power company.

What’s not to like? Well, from Peter Melnick’s perspective, Eversource — which he thought was going to hook his generator to the grid last spring. He’s still waiting; until the digester is tied to the grid, he’s flaring off much of the methane because there is nowhere for the potential electricity to flow.

Melnick and his developer blame the delay on Eversource, which collected $500,000 for a substation to accommodate the power. Eversource blames the delay on mid-project changes by the developer and on delays by Verizon, which has to install utility poles.

Melnick says the farm has been losing $80,000 to $100,000 a month in potential revenue from electricity it has not been producing since early March.

Meanwhile, two or three trucks a week have been delivering organic food waste from around the state, at the rate of 75 tons, added to about 25 tons of manure a week from Bar-Way’s cows to meet the obligations of the farm’s partnership with Wellesley-based Vanguard Renewables. A Vanguard spokesman calls Eversource’s approach to the project “just poor customer service.”

Eversource spokeswoman Priscilla Ress told the Recorder that the project “is expected to be online in November.”

“I don’t think that we’re changing the deadline,” she said. “When it comes to the work that had to be done on our end, we made sure to expedite it whenever possible. There have been changes that were made to the plan and to the project by the developer, and those were done midstream. So that caused changes to the timeline. And this is within about a year after the payment for construction. This is a big accomplishment, given … how complex this project is.”

This project is a big accomplishment, or will be when it’s finally connected. It’s an approach to sustainable living and green-energy generation to be encouraged and advanced. We wish Eversource had given it the same priority that led state and federal agencies to give Melnick hundreds of thousands in start-up money.

Melnick has traveled to the State House in Boston to testify on House bill 3385, which would further promote use of anaerobic digesters to help struggling dairy farmers use their cow manure to produce more income. Eversource’s difficulty helping in a more timely way makes that tougher.

We have no idea what goes on in the utility’s internal planning meetings and what its priorities are, but the optics here are bad and allow Eversource critics to conclude the utility isn’t all that interested in fostering alternative energy solutions. We’d encourage company officials to confound those critics by tying Bar-Way to the grid as quickly as possible, and to give other alternative energy projects a similar priority. In this era of fossil-fuel induced climate change, it should be the new way of doing business.