Sustainability Series: Vanguard Renewables
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Business and life ‘as usual’ may look quite different than it did six months ago, but even a global pandemic hasn’t changed how much food the dairy cows at farms around the state eat, nor has it affected manure-production. At five dairy farms across Massachusetts, manure is sent underground to the feeding tanks of anaerobic digesters where it is broken down, releasing methane gas that is used to power the farm. Manure will break down and release methane gas naturally without the aid of these large machines but the anaerobic digesters are designed to speed up the decomposition process, capture the gas, and burn it for energy.
One of Vanguard Renewables’ anaerobic digesters at Crescent Farm in Haverhill, MA
The anaerobic digesters are built on the farm’s land and are owned and operated by Vanguard Renewables, a farmer-first renewable energy company based in Wellesley, MA. Vanguard partners with dairy farmers across the state to build their 600,000+ gallon digesters that use the cow manure from the farm and organic food and beverage waste from businesses in the surrounding area to feed the microbes in the digester. Together, these digesters can process nearly 200,000 tons per year of combined on and off-farm organics. The microbes break down these organic products and produce methane gas that inflates the rubber roof of the digester structure. The methane gas is then extracted from the digester and converted into renewable electricity, which is used by the farm and can be uploaded to the grid providing power to not only the farm but homes and businesses as well. The farm also receives heat, a byproduct of the process, for their farm buildings.
Milk sales alone cannot sustain a dairy farm business today. Vanguard Renewables can make it possible for farmers to save money and benefit from a closed-loop energy system. Farmers receive a hosting lease payment from Vanguard for housing the anaerobic digester on their land. Farmers benefit from reduced energy costs, manure management, and significant reductions in on-farm greenhouse gas emissions. They also receive the low odor, low carbon liquid fertilizer byproduct of the digestion process, which replaces chemical fertilizers. The dry material left over is repurposed for animal bedding which has proven to improve cow comfort and herd health.
An anaerobic digester facility under construction.
Not only are the digesters an asset to the host farms and their neighbors, they also provide an outlet for tons of food waste generated each day by Massachusetts restaurants, farms, businesses, and grocery stores. In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) instituted a food waste ban for businesses and institutions that produced more than one ton of food waste each week. According to a study conducted for MassDEP, this ban affects more than 1,700 businesses in the state. Vanguard’s Farm Powered® food waste collection and recycling program enables Massachusetts businesses to comply with the state ban on food waste while simultaneously contributing to the sustainable production of renewable natural gas. Current participants include Whole Foods, Gillette Stadium, MGM Springfield, Gorton’s Seafood, Wachusett Brewing Company, Tree House Brewing, and Cape Cod Potato Chips to name a few. Partners such as Cabot Creamery benefit two-fold because a portion of the energy created is sent back to power the Agri-Mark/Cabot processing plant in West Springfield, MA.
By mid-March of this year, dairy farmers were feeling the impact of COVID-19 on their milk and alcohol markets respectively. As schools, universities, restaurants, and bars closed, Vanguard Renewables saw tons of milk wasted: it was being trucked directly from cows to anaerobic digester for disposal and brewers were forced to dump tons of stale beer that they were unable to sell.
Vanguard knew people were in need of this milk, but the sudden changes to our society meant that the usual distribution chain was no longer capable of getting the milk to those who needed it. With help from DFA Cares, HP Hood, Guida’s Dairy, the National Guard, and Massachusetts State Representative Shawn Dooley, Vanguard Renewables spearheaded efforts to process and package milk into gallons and redirect it to families in need, donating more than 17,000 gallons through the multiple Farmers Feeding Families events hosted during the spring and summer.
Vanguard CEO John Hanselman (L) and Randy Jordan (R) of Jordan Dairy Farms pose together with gallons of milk at the Farmers Feeding Families Event in June 2020.
Vanguard Renewables’ unique and innovative closed-loop renewable energy model has won them many awards over the last few years. From the American Biogas Council Vanguard and some of their partner farms have received the 2016 ‘Project of the Year Award’ and the 2019 ‘Longevity’ and ‘Up and Coming’ Awards. In 2018 Vanguard Renewables was awarded the prestigious Organics Recycler of the Year distinction from the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA) and most recently, Vanguard received Energy Vision’s 2020 Leadership Award.
An array of awards for Vanguard Renewables as presented on their website’s homepage.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty about what the future will look like, Vanguard is committed to doing their part to ensure that farmers, their families, local communities, and the planet are well-cared for. Vanguard continues to expand the number of farms equipped with anaerobic digesters. There are currently multiple manure-only and manure and organics combined-digesters under construction on farms in Vermont, New York, and nationwide. Additional projects include an organics recycling facility with technology to ‘de-package’ expired food that comes in non-degradable packaging.
You can find out more about Vanguard on their website or check them out on LinkedIn or on other social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Companies interested in diverting their food waste from the landfills can visit www.foodwaste.com to find out more about how to transport their food waste to one of Vanguard’s anaerobic digesters.