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Vanguard Renewables’ Neil Smith Discusses Aggressive Expansion Plans

Article-Vanguard Renewables’ Neil Smith Discusses Aggressive Expansion Plans

Partnership Brings Anaerobic Digester, RNG to Vermont
The global anaerobic digestion (AD) market will reach $15.28 billion by 2025, forecasts Brandessence Market Research; other research firms make similar projections, and North America is dominating in this space.

The global anaerobic digestion (AD) market will reach $15.28 billion by 2025, forecasts Brandessence Market Research; other research firms make similar projections, and North America is dominating in this space. Driving the trend are policies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, growing demand for renewable energy, and federal and some state incentives to invest in renewable natural gas (RNG) sourced from methane.

Vanguard Renewables is among enterprises tapping into that market. With 10 anaerobic digesters in operation, the company anticipates huge growth in the next few years, with contracts at over 120 farms—projects that are on track to be completed by 2026, says Vanguard Renewables CEO Neil Smith.

Smith discussed with Waste360 partnerships with the farming, energy, and food and beverage industries that are propelling the rapid trajectory. He talks about why Vanguard, who has done organics co-digestion for some time, added on manure-only to renewable natural gas . Smith names food and beverage majors that will become the company’s feedstock anchors. And he discusses an interesting partnership with a utility and college that demonstrates a circular system.

Waste360: Tell us about Vanguard’s progress in the organics-to-renewable space and near-future plans.

Smith: Working with some of the nation’s largest food and beverage manufacturers, we are diverting food and beverage waste and also making renewable natural gas on multi-generational dairy farms around the country.

Since 2014, Vanguard Renewables has mitigated nearly 500,000 tons of GHG emissions and recycled more than 862,000 tons of organic waste.

We are committed to growing our business across the country and are on track to build at least 100 additional anaerobic digesters by 2026 across both our co-digestion and manure-only platforms.

Waste360: Why did you launch your Renewables Ag division (expansion into manure-only)?

Smith: In 2019, we launched our Vanguard Renewables Ag division in partnership with Dominion Energy, expanding our business to manure-only to renewable natural gas and working with larger dairy farms. Methane emissions from the dairy industry make up only 2 percent of the nation’s total GHG emissions, but that is still a significant contributor to the climate crisis. Our goal is to help our farm partners manage their manure in a new and sustainable way that also generates renewable natural gas to offset fossil fuel use.


Waste360: What more can you say about the farmers, and what they get from working with Vanguard?

Smith: A critically important part of our mission is Vanguard’s commitment to working with American dairy farmers to manage manure, diversify income streams, and support regenerative agriculture.

The dairy industry has been targeted with a great deal of blame for methane emissions impacting the climate crisis. The dairy farms we work with are largely multi-generational with a desire to continue farming into the future. By locating our farm-powered anaerobic digesters on these family farms, we are helping to preserve them for future generations by providing them with a lease hosting payment; free, low-carbon, high-nutrient liquid digestate fertilizer that occurs organically from the digestion process; and bedding for their herd that is rich in their own biometrics and is 95 percent free of pathogens.

Waste360: What potential is afforded by investing in technology to divert food waste, and what’s driving that potential?

Smith: While we continue to grow our Ag division with Dominion, we remain focused on our roots in the anaerobic co-digestion business, which diverts inedible food and beverage waste from landfills and harmful incinerators and combines it with dairy manure in an anaerobic digester to produce renewable energy.

We believe this side of our business has significant growth potential in the coming years due to aggressive sustainability targets set by major food and beverage manufacturers including zero-waste-to-landfill goals by 2030 or earlier; recent legislation banning organics from landfills and incineration; and the ongoing closure of those outdated and climate- polluting disposal methods.

Also, new SEC broad proposed rules include a requirement for publicly traded companies to disclose how climate change risks affecting their business are elevating the conversation around demonstratable sustainability and ESG goals and associated programs such as organics recycling.

Waste360: Are there other challenges your feedstock partners have asked you to help solve?  

Smith: One of the challenges we heard from food and beverage manufacturers was around the disposal of packaged food or beverages that could not be sold or donated. Without preprocessing to remove the food or beverage waste from the packaging, this waste is largely disposed of in landfills or via incineration.

To address this challenge, we built an organics recycling facility for our New England market where we de-package that waste, recycle the packaging, and send the contents to our anaerobic digesters.

Moving forward, every new co-digestion facility we develop around the country will have its own accompanying de-packaging facility. This creates full-service recycling for our partners; keeps that waste out of landfills or incinerators; and provides food and beverage companies with a substantial milestone towards their zero-waste-to landfill or incineration initiatives.

Waste360:  In your tenure, what are some of the success stories that you can share?

Smith: One of the biggest Vanguard Renewables success stories to me is that we’ve not been slowed down by the pandemic. Like most industries, we are dealing with supply chain issues, and we address those as they arise. But the demand for renewable energy and the climate change mitigation challenge has kept our business progressing even in these tough times.

Another recent milestone for us is the commissioning of the first manure-only digesters. Manure management is an issue that dairy farmers are grappling with and building an infrastructure of anaerobic digesters around the country is one way we are helping to solve that problem.

We’ve been able to provide some relief in light of the international crisis in Ukraine in that our farm-powered process creates a high nutrient, low-carbon digestate that our farm partners can use for free as fertilizer for their crops. With the cost of foreign fertilizer at an all-time high, we see this as an opportunity to help American farmers reduce their dependence on foreign and chemical fertilizers.

We’ve heard from our farm partners that by using the digestate fertilizer, they’ve experienced substantial savings and greater crop yields. At the Goodrich Farm in Vermont, using the digestate has enabled them to increase hay cuttings from a typical four-per-year, per-field, to six. And the quality of the hay has significantly increased.

At Bar-Way Farm in Massachusetts, cover and cash crop yields have far outpaced other farmers in the market, including the farm’s hemp crop. The farm has yielded the equivalent of 14 acres of hemp from 10 acres of fields in production.

Waste360: What’s happening with the anaerobic digester system you recently launched in Vermont—the largest in New England?

Smith: It’s at the Goodrich Farm in Salisbury, Vermont and, yes, it’s the largest anaerobic digester in New England. Chase Goodrich and his sister, Danielle Goodrich-Gingras, considered building a digester to support their manure management. However, they soon realized that developing and operating such a large and technical facility was not something they wanted to do on their own.

Partnering with Vanguard Renewables, Vermont Gas Systems, and Middlebury College, the Goodrich family now hosts two 925,000-gallon anaerobic digesters on the farm that can convert 180 tons of food and beverage waste and 100 tons of manure each day into renewable natural gas. They receive income from the lease of their land and benefit from the byproducts of the digestion process, which saves them money on fertilizer and bedding.

The renewable natural gas produced at the farm is cleaned, upgraded, and injected directly into the existing pipeline infrastructure right at the site. Middlebury College purchases the majority of the gas produced to reach the college’s net zero goals.

The project is also significant because it incorporates a phosphorus reduction system to help protect the Otter Creek Watershed that feeds into Lake Champlain from nutrient loading.

Since completing the anaerobic digester, the Goodrich Farm has recycled more than 66,000 tons of organic waste, which includes the manure from their herd. Managing manure through the digester and diverting that organic waste from landfills is the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions reduction of taking more than 34,000 cars off the road for one year. Additionally, the project has generated enough renewable natural gas to heat nearly 2,000 homes in one year.

Waste360: What’s the goal of the Farm Powered Strategic Alliance, and who are the players?

Smith: The Farm Powered Strategic Alliance (FPSA) is a collaborative movement to boost food waste reduction and recycling and expand renewable energy usage across America. The members commit to recycling unavoidable food and beverage waste on farms where it is combined with manure in a farm-powered anaerobic digester to generate renewable natural gas.

A circular approach, the Alliance aims to reduce the detrimental environmental impacts of CO2 emissions and offers a direct pathway to a carbon-neutral footprint.

Launched in 2020 with Vanguard Renewables, Starbucks, Unilever, and Dairy Farmers of America, the Alliance now includes some of the biggest names in the food and beverage industry. The newest members are Cabot Creamery Co-operative, Stonyfield Organic, Smithfield Foods, Kikkoman, Polar Beverages, Hillebrand GORI, Chobani, and Food Tank. Many of these members’ manufacturing facilities will become our anchor feedstock suppliers as we expand our national co-digestion program.

Cabot Creamery and Polar Beverages close the circularity loop by purchasing the renewable energy produced from their waste at our anaerobic digesters to power their manufacturing facilities.

Waste360:  Is Vanguard engaged in other unique partnerships?

Smith: We have strategic partnerships with multiple organizations including Enbridge, ONE Gas, Dominion Energy, Vermont Gas Systems, and Dairy Farmers of America.

Additionally, we have partnerships with waste collection companies like Wind River Environmental, Casella, Bronson Transport, Black Earth Compost, Blue Earth Compost, and Waste Connections, to name a few.

Our logistics team schedules deliveries directly to our digester sites or to our organics recycling facility, saving drivers time and the collection company money. Coupled with the rising price of diesel fuel, it becomes even more advantageous for our partners to deliver straight to our sites to lower their overall operating costs. We also help connect them with new clients. It’s a win for all of us.

Waste360: What will be key to reaching your goal of commissioning 100 anaerobic digesters by 2026?

Smith: The most important consideration for us toward accomplishing this goal is a solid strategic plan that keeps us focused and nimble as we embark on this phase of rapid growth.

We won’t be able to achieve our vision without a winning team, and similarly to the way we are building digesters, we are building a team from the ground up. We come to work every day knowing that the world is facing a climate crisis. CO2 in the atmosphere is now at 420-plus parts per million, which Earth hasn’t experienced since the Pliocene era, more than 4.2 million years ago - that makes what we do even more pressing.

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