Bar-Way Farm methane digester still off the grid despite Eversource promise

  • The Bar Way Farm in Deerfield completed its new waste digester early this year. The farm is now waiting for Eversource to hook the methane-burning generator to the electric grid. Recorder File Photo/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 9/19/2017 11:07:51 PM

DEERFIELD — A loud humming, two flares more than a dozen feet off the ground and a pair of rubber bladder domes, fully inflated, are a sure sign that the methane digester is running smoothly at Bar-Way Farm, where the sign along Mill River Road boasts its “Farm Powered” system is at work churning and burning manure and food waste into energy.

But the fact that those flares have been a constant since the $5 million system went online at the beginning of March is also a sign that nearly all of the power produced by the 1-megawatt generator every day is wasted.

Eversource, according to farmer Peter Melnick, has failed to meet several promised dates for hooking up the methane-burning generator to the electric grid.

“We were promised we’d be hooked up in the spring, and here it is the fall,” he said, adding that the farm has been losing $80,000 to $100,000 a month in lost revenue from electricity it’s been producing since early March. “They’ve done some work, but they’re saying it could be two or four months more. But it’s not for sure.”

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 500 Holstein cows to meet the obligations of the farm’s partnership with Wellesley-based Vanguard Renewables.

“We’re stuck in the middle,” William Jorgenson, Vangard’s managing director, said, “where they’re saying ‘oh we can’t do the work as we promised,’ so they say now ‘we have to do these other things, so we have to get back to you.’ We gave them over $500,000 at the beginning this year to do this work and it’s still not done. If you don’t own up to your mistake and say ‘I’ll get people to do what they have to do to fix it, and say you’ll just have to wait.’ That’s just poor customer service.”

Eversource spokeswoman Priscilla Ress told The Recorder on Tuesday that the project “is expected to be online in November,” and she blamed delays on changes made by Vanguard as well as Verizon in installing poles to connect the generator to the utility’s substation.

“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 the nature and how complex this project is.”

Jorgenson met Monday with an aide to U.S. Rep. James McGovern calling for the congressman’s office to pressure Eversource to get the project hooked up. “We’ve tried everything we can to play by the rules and inside the box, and this has now reached so much frustration, to get to this point and have these kinds of things happen, we’re finished,” he said.

According to Jorgenson, Eversource’s engineering department signed off on the project last October and then found that there weren’t enough poles installed to make a proper connection, The electric utility then blamed Verizon for not installing enough poles.

He said the project has also been stalled by a requirement for “re-closure” equipment at the utility’s substation, to automatically shut off the digester if there is a bad circuit. Bar-Way have already paid Eversource a half-million dollars to do the work, for which a workaround system could be set up temporarily similar to one Vanguard set up for a digester at Hadley’s Barstow Farm.

“That’s been running for two years,” he said, “and it’s a very safe way of doing that until you’ve got this extra fancy-dancy, new-fangled thing,” Jorgenson said.

The methane digester, which is engineered to help solve the state’s need to get rid of food waste from food processing as well as manure from dairy farms while also meeting its renewable energy needs to combat climate change, has received a $335,000 grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, $400,000 from the state’s Clean Energy Center and assistance from the state Department of Environmental Protection and private lenders.

Instead of providing electricity for the farm — for the buildings, and for running the digester — with excess power being sold back to Eversource to make the project cost-effective, Melnick said it has been just enough to power.

According to Melnick — who 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 — Bar-Way also has to rent a “load bank” to absorb some of the generator’s unused electricity.

“We’re only making 10 to 15 percent of the income we should be making, and it’s really putting a strain on our financial situation,” Melnick said. “Everybody wants green power, and the state’s really excited about us being a home for the organic material. It’s a wonderful project, the cows are doing wonderfully on the bedding we’re producing and we’re going to use the heat for our barn and houses this winter.”


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