Carbon Harvest files for bankruptcy

Wednesday May 1, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Carbon Harvest's experiment to develop a closed loop, sustainable, food, energy and algae system is over.

The company, which was developing the project with waste from the Windham Solid Waste Management District, filed for bankruptcy last week.

"It's very disappointing from the district's perspective," said WSWMD Executive Director Bob Spencer. "It was a great use of landfill gas and their plan to produce food was an attractive piece of the puzzle."

Carbon Harvest opened in 2009 when then-president Don McCormick said he wanted to use the methane gas from the Brattleboro landfill to produce energy. The heat produced would warm greenhouses, McCormick promised, where he could raise produce. McCormick also planned to raise fish in the greenhouse and use the carbon dioxide to produce algae.

Carbon Harvest was able to capture the methane gas and produce energy, but the food, fish and algae systems were never commercially viable.

The company laid off all but three of its employees in October after announcing that it had run out of cash, but McCormick said at the time that he was going to try to find the funding to keep the business afloat.

Spencer said he was hopeful at the time that Carbon Harvest would be able to continue its work in Brattleboro.

The WSWMD Board of Directors spent a lot of time negotiating the deal between the district and the company, Spencer said, and the company was paying $500 per month to rent the space off of Old Ferry Road.

Spencer said the plants and fish that were left in the company's buildings have all been composted. He also said Brattleboro's upcoming expansion of its compost program was going to add to the methane-to-energy system and he said he was hoping someone else would take over that part of the project.

"They paid us through February and there was always potential for higher revenue but it never kicked in," said Spencer. "This all just happened and we're trying to figure out the next step."

A new group of investors, led by Dave Stiller, whose family started Green Mountain Coffee, took over earlier this year and McCormick resigned.

Steve Magowan is an attorney who represents the new investment team and he said he recommended that the company file for bankruptcy.

"They ran out of money in October, and they have been out of money since then," Magowan said.

Vermont Economic Development Authority CEO Jo Bradley said the organization gave Carbon Harvest two loans; one for $360,000 in 2010 and then a second for $450,000 in 2012.

"It's not good news," said Bradley. "It is always hard when a business has to close, not only for the company's principals and lenders but for the employees as well."

VEDA has the first lien on Carbon Harvest's assets and will be an active participant in the bankruptcy hearings.

According to Bradley 99 percent of the businesses and organization that receive funding from VEDA are able to pay their loans back. She said VEDA had been in close contact with Carbon Harvest since the company announced in October that it had run into financial difficulties.

"The most difficult part of this job is finding the balance between taking a chance on a new business and protecting our lenders," Bradley said. "This was a very innovative concept and most of the time those are the most difficult projects to make work."

The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund provided Carbon Harvest with a $215,000 federal grant to study how the algae grows.

Executive Director Ellen Kahler said the group is doing research around the state to see if the algae can be used day to produce biofuel.

Kahler said the research at Carbon Harvest was completed, the information gathered there will be included in an upcoming report, and the company will not have to pay any of the money back.

Vermont Development Secretary Lawrence Miller said that while Carbon Harvest received two different state grants, the company was never able to meet the benchmarks to access the funds.

Miller said the state authorized a $569,000 Vermont Employment Growth Incentive, and a Community Block Grant for $325,000 for the project, but neither of the grants was distributed.

"It was a very interesting and innovative project and we all understood that a lot of this was for research and development," Miller said. "Maybe some day someone will be able to use that for a new opportunity. It just wasn't their time."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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