Governor Phil Scott addresses Vermont Dairy Industry Association members during the Vermont Farm Show Thursday. VBM photo.
by Timothy McQuiston Vermont Business Magazine There’s little question that farmers, especially dairy farmers, in the Northwestern part of Vermont have been painted as the “bad guy” regarding phosphorus pollution in Lake Carmi, Lake Champlain and many points in-between. Governor Phil Scott has tried to both mollify some of the hysteria involving farmer responsibility while also trying to find a solution to what is a clear problem fouling the state’s waterways.
Picking up where he left off in his budget address, Scott on Thursday, at the Farm Show in Essex Junction, released his plan to reduce farm-based phosphorus pollution by working with farmers to capture and commercialize this valuable mineral.
here is a worldwide shortage of phosphorus, but isolating it from manure or farm runoff and turning it back into a commercially viable product will require new entrepreneurship.
The state has a net phosphorus loading of three tons a year. Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore said that one ton is related to fertilizer, which will be the easier part to deal with. The other two are related to agriculture (principally manure) and human activity and will require a more concerted effort. She and the governor and Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts all angled toward reducing phosphorus before it enters the processing cycle.
For the most part now, manure, for instance, is just stored. There are modest efforts already to turn it into compost (Moo-Dirt) or energy (Cow Power). The governor likened the phosphorus provbem to the whey problem of a previous generation in Franklin County. Now whey is repurposed for baby formula.
While Scott makes the case that the system is “out of balance,” his administration’s proposal will take upwards of two years with only about $300,000 in which to spend for identifying entrepreneurs willing to take on this mitigation, assess the concept and then move forward with a commercialization plan. The financing will come from bonding as a financial bridge to a hoped-for commercial enterprise.
But nearly at the same moment the governor was laying out his plan as one part of trying to cleanup the state’s waterways, a surprising event in New Hampshire could make a significant difference in the state’s efforts.
The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee on Thursday rejected a $1.6 billion plan by Eversource and Hydro Quebec to provide nearly 1,100 megawatts of electricity to Massachusetts via a 192-mile transmission line through the White Mountains.
Just last week a Massachusetts energy committee had selected Eversource and its Northern Pass project despite considerable opposition based on economic and environmental concerns.
Two other projects from Vermont could be selected. One in particular by TDI and its 100-mile Lake Champlain transmission line, has all its permit and environmental blessings in hand and is a whopping $400 million cheaper for 1,000 megawatts (likely also to be contracted with Hydro Quebec).
With Eversource vowing to appeal the unanimous rejection, the ultimate winning bidder may not be announced for some unknown time (Massachusetts however wants it lighted up by the end of 2019).
But if the TDI project were ultimately selected, Scott has said he would earmark $5 million a year for clean water from the proceeds of hosting the project.
In the meantime, Vermont needs to keep moving forward under mandate of the Environmental Protection Agency to have a plan to cleanup Lake Champlain.
During the governor’s budget address in late January, he outlined his Phosphorus Innovation Challenge.
Scott said: “The key to cleaning up our lakes and waterways is reducing the amount of phosphorous flowing into them. Right now, we’re using a 20th Century strategy, building infrastructure to capture phosphorus. It is estimated this will cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars over the next 20 years, which doesn’t even include maintenance and upgrade costs. I believe there is a more innovative solution – one that creates economic growth by generating revenue and jobs and could be exported to places struggling with this very same challenge. There is a large market for phosphorous in the energy, fertilizer and compost industries, and manufacturers purchase phosphorous and raw organic materials for their products.”
Working with the Agency of Agriculture, the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Commerce & Community Development, Vermont is seeking an innovation solution to the challenge of mitigating phosphorous that may also create a business opportunity. The state will continue to deploy aggressive conservation measures to manage excess phosphorous in manure once it has been applied to the land while also working on a new approach.
Here is the new thinking:
- Incentivize creation of a commercial operation that captures excess phosphorus (from manure) before it is applied to the land and convert it to a saleable product.
- Determine a market for the extracted phosphorus.
- Generate an economic value and grow jobs surrounding extracted phosphorus.
Scott: “My administration is exploring how the State can help create a commercial enterprise that captures a large amount of Vermont’s excess phosphorus and convert it into a wholesale or retail product. We’ll soon be looking to harness the imagination and competitive nature of entrepreneurs, scientists and inventors, seeking proposals for the most efficient and commercially viable ways to segregate, process, package and sell phosphorus. This is the kind of creative thinking we need to solve this problem, and I invite you to join with us in this effort,” said Governor Phil Scott in his speech to lawmakers.
To support this effort, the state will launch “The Reverse Pitch”:
- Invite entrepreneurs, scientists and inventors to propose the most efficient and commercially viable “P-Project” to capture, process, package and sell excess phosphorus.
- Phase 1 - Open the “Reverse Pitch” -- an invitation to submit written proposals/applications to the State for “proof of concept” seed money.
- Phase 2 - Select 3-to-5 “P-Projects” for proof of concept development grants. Each winner would receive $50,000 in proof of concept funding.
- Phase 3 - Evaluate proof of concept prototypes and select the team(s) to invest in. Investment would be scalable based on the benefits provided by the “P-Project”.
- State and 3rd-party advisors interested in the success of the “P-Project” will review all project submissions.
Historically, government at all levels has been reactive in responding to water quality issues and challenges. In this case, we look at ways to mitigate the impact of phosphorus once it is on the ground. We need to transition reactive response to proactive prevention – taking control and making things happen.