The Carbon Harvest green houses at the Windham Solid Waste Management District in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro)
The Carbon Harvest green houses at the Windham Solid Waste Management District in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro)
Saturday June 29, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Though Carbon Harvest's business withered, officials say the company's former home may yet yield jobs in Brattleboro.

The renewable-energy business, which filed for bankruptcy this year, had operated on Windham Solid Waste Management District property off Old Ferry Road.

Though the bankruptcy proceedings are ongoing, officials say they're already seeing interest in the property.

"I'm cautiously optimistic something will come back here," said Bob Spencer, the management district's executive director. "It could be used for a number of different things."

Burlington-based Carbon Harvest had billed itself as "the country's first integrated renewable energy-to-agriculture and algae biodiesel project."

The complex business plan had included harvesting methane gas from a closed, capped landfill at the Windham district site and using that gas to generate power for the grid. The resulting heat warmed a greenhouse where vegetables were grown for sale to grocery stores.

Algae and tilapia also were part of the setup.

But things took a turn for the worse in October, when Carbon Harvest ran out of cash and laid off several workers here. In April, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Left behind were relatively new equipment and facilities including two generators and a greenhouse.

Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) officials have said they loaned Carbon Harvest more than $800,000 and now have a lien on the former business' buildings. The land is owned by the waste-management district.

"We are working closely with VEDA to find a new owner, and there is some interest," Spencer said, though he said it is too early to provide any details.

"Interest" doesn't necessarily mean any new investor or operator would be replicating Carbon Harvest's business model. Rather, officials say there are multiple potential uses for all or part of the property.

Ideally, the goal is to "find another company to come in and buy it as a commercial investment. That could happen," Spencer said. "The district is not interested in buying the greenhouse and trying to be growing crops. That's not our function."

When Carbon Harvest stopped making its $500 monthly rental payments, the waste-management district could have found the company in default. But Spencer said the district's board decided to not do so.

"We feel the value of the project is better if it's not declared in default," Spencer said.

Accumulating late payments, he added, simply would have been "another expenditure that someone coming in would have to carry on their books. It's not about the money."

In the meantime, however, the district is not losing out. Spencer said the district recently received four months of rent payments from VEDA, totaling $2,000.

While working to find new business opportunities for the site, district administrators also are looking within. Officials see opportunity in the fact that the district has begun composting organic waste collected in Brattleboro.

"We have been evaluating, as a district, putting in a methane-gas generator," Spencer said. "It would be a bio-digester -- an anaerobic digester -- which takes food waste and turns it into methane."

That methane could be fed into the generators that had been used by Carbon Harvest, he added, noting that the landfill does not produce enough gas to fully power both generators.

Spencer also pointed out that a new state law phases in mandatory recycling of all food waste, both commercial and residential. That will dramatically increase the amount of organic waste sent to the Old Ferry Road facility.

Marlboro College graduate students last year studied the management district's digester proposal.

"It's a very nice fit," Spencer said. "But, again, like anything, there are a lot of technical and financial issues."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.