By Jito Coleman
Governor Scott’s new phosphorus recovery concept appears to be the administration’s best effort to address the endemic problem facing Vermont’s waterways. As currently described, the governor’s plan is to use crowdsourcing to identify potential technical solutions and then provide seed money to move them forward to a commercial scale.
With over 30 years in product development here in Vermont, I was surprised by a number of aspects of this plan. The ability for this plan to actually provide meaningful phosphorus reduction in Vermont’s waters will depend on successful results first from new research and development activities and then from the full commercialization phase for the new technology. That’s a big ask. But even a bigger ask if the governor wants to make meaningful phosphorus reduction in his lifetime.
First let’s look at the concept of crowdsourced ideas, which by its very nature admits there is not a known or accepted technology already in use. In other words, the technology to address this issue does not exist, so we have to ask the “crowd.”
NOT ONLY PLACE
Vermont isn’t the only place in the world that has problems with too much phosphorus in its waters. It seems odd that such a broad-based problem doesn’t have any known solutions or any relevant existing federal or state research programs. In fact, in announcing this initiative, the governor has not offered evidence of any technology that has been commercialized to recover phosphorus that is a feasible, replicable and financeable product.
The governor proposes splitting up $250,000 between a number of entities that have promising ideas for phosphorus recovery. In my experience, it is extremely unlikely that this would be a sufficient amount of money to take any new idea through the R&D phase of development, let alone get the technology to the point where you could develop reliable commercialization plans with credible project financials. So even if the crowd produced a new promising idea, it is hard to imagine that the limited seed money could produce a viable commercial solution.
I've seen no evidence to allay these concerns and there is no indication that further evidence will be forthcoming from the governor's office. This idea feels like a Hail Mary pass without any receivers downfield ready to make the catch.
So why aren’t there any known potentials solutions? Seems like a major jump by the governor to suggest that the market for reclaimed phosphate is the issue. In fact, this might be the biggest leap in this entire plan.
The market price for phosphorus is well established with equally strong well-established lines of supply. Comments from experts at UVM have challenged the governor on just this point. This assumption is a crux in the governor’s idea that needs to be validated before the state decides to fund any crowdsourced ideas.
The governor and the Agency of Natural Resources secretary have said that he expects meaningful results from this initiative in 18 to 24 months. This is certainly a stretch for the development on any new technology. This is especially true if “meaningful results” suggests that the new concept will make a serious difference in the amount of phosphorus in our waters. The problem Vermont faces is the massive amount of phosphorus already in our waters and new phosphorus pouring in every day. With no clear solution in hand, with no clear market and with no funding source in place, the plan is already a failure.
In summary, the governor’s idea is for little ol’ Vermont, with a pittance of dollars, to stimulate the invention of a new commercial-scale phosphorus extraction technology to save our lakes and water in the next couple of years.
Coleman lives in Warren.