News

Proponents of Baylands compost plant not sold on new city proposal

Leaders of Measure E campaign ask staff not to reject private-sector offers just yet

With Palo Alto preparing to debate the future of composting on Tuesday night, several environmental advocates are asking the city to tread cautiously on staff's new proposal for a four-phased approach toward treating organic waste.

Peter Drekmeier and Bob Wenzlau, who were both active in the successful passage of Measure E in 2011, both plan to ask the City Council not to approve a recommendation from the Public Works Department to reject all the offers the city has received from the private sector relating to processing local organic waste. The companies were asked to propose ways to process the city's sewage sludge, food scraps and yard trimmings.

While the staff proposal argues that it would make economic sense to scrap all three of the private-sector responses and to have the city gradually develop solutions to the three waste streams, Drekmeier and Wenzlau aren't sold on the idea. Drekmeier told the Weekly on Thursday that more time is needed to vet staff's analysis and assumptions about future costs of a city-run waste operation. The city proposal would initially target sewage sludge and then later add food waste and yard trimmings. It would entail building a wet anaerobic digester near the Regional Water Quality Control Plant in the Baylands.

The concept of a city-owned facility was initially greeted with enthusiasm in February, with conservationist Emily Renzel and environmentalist Walt Hays both praising staff's work on the new organic-waste plan. The two had been on opposite sides of Measure E, a controversial proposal to set aside Baylands acreage for a waste-to-energy plant, in 2011.

At the time, Drekmeier called the idea of the city owning and operating the facility "very promising" and suggested that staff consider an arrangement in which a private vendor builds a facility and owns it initially before handing it over to the city.

Since then, staff has released more details about the proposal and these details have given him and his group, Palo Alto Green Energy, several reasons for concern. Drekmeier said the staff analysis, which was first made public last week, doesn't factor in labor costs and doesn't fully explain how staff arrived at its conclusion that a city-run operation would be cheaper than ones proposed by the three vendors, Harvest Power, We Generation and Synagro. While Synagro offered to export all three waste streams, the other two vendors each proposed to build anaerobic digestion plants, with the We Generation proposal involving a technique called thermal hydrolysis to get more energy out of the waste.

Drekmeier said the community needs more time to review the analysis made by staff and suggested that the city may reach a different conclusion once these issues are resolved. He pointed to the feasibility study that the city conducted in 2011, which showed initially that exporting organic waste would be the cheapest option. Later, staff revised its assumptions and concluded that building a dry anaerobic digester would cost less (now, staff is banking on a slightly different waste-to-energy technology known as wet anaerobic digester).

Because of these questions, Drekemeier said he plans to oppose the staff recommendation on Tuesday.

"The report hasn't been vetted yet," Drekmeier said.

Bob Wenzlau, who like Drekmeier was involved in the Measure E campaign also voiced reservations Thursday about the new proposal. He also argued that staff's analysis has financial errors and that its recommendation departs from "the sentiments of those that supported Meausure E."

"The composting effort has been hijacked by the wastewater treatment plant interests," Wenzlau wrote in a letter the council, urging council members to reject staff's recommendation.

Rather than reject the three proposals, the council should award the contract to Harvest Power, the cheaper of the two local solutions, Wenzlau wrote.

"During the contract negotiation the City can augment Harvest's proposal to incorporate thermal hydrolysis and thereby get further energy yield and a higher quality organic material at the completion of food and biosolids digestion," Wenzlau wrote. "This adjustment is minor, and We Generation and Harvest Power appear eager to serve the city's interest."

If the council chooses not to award the contract to Harvest Power, it should request that staff further scrutinize the costs of the various options.

Related article:

Years after divisive vote, Palo Alto proposes sharp shift on composting

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 24, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Peter's and Bob's distress is not surprising. Staff is pulling the plug on their expensive ideological fantasy in favor of a sensible proposal that actually addresses the city's needs.

Finally, city hall is making sense.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 24, 2014 at 2:42 pm

Peter Drekmeier is quoted in your article as saying "The report hasn't been vetted yet". Our Staff, along with the rest of a 10 member Technical Advisory Group has been vetting the responses to the RFP since last July. These experts are from Stanford, City of San Jose, our Water Quality Control Plant, our Utilities Department and our Public Works Department as well as Consultant Jim Binder who did the ARI Feasibility Study in 2011 (which Peter relied upon heavily in the election). A six member panel comprised of 3 people from each side of the Measure E issue have been reviewing the issue since last December. This issue has consumed hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of staff time, huge amounts of Refuse Fund dollars for studies and for delaying closure of the landfill for two years. I guess "not being vetted" means coming out with a result that doesn't fit Peter's hypothesis.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by David Bubenik
a resident of University South
on Apr 24, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Anaerobic digestion (AD) "garbage to energy" is a spectacularly carbon-dirty source of energy, and only a marginally renewable one.

All the carbon in the organic AD feedstock comes from the CO2 that plants sequestered from the atmosphere for us. The anaerobic digestion process puts that carbon right back into the atmosphere:

o At great $$ expense

o For a negligible energy return

o With a huge carbon footprint

Why not keep that sequestered carbon sequestered? Isn't that what a carbon-smart city would do?

For the whole story, visit www.bayfacts.org and click on the link "Read All About It!"



 +   Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 24, 2014 at 8:32 pm

I guess trucking sewage sludge to the east bay or the central valley is OK. Very NIMBY.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Tim Evans
a resident of another community
on Apr 25, 2014 at 6:35 am

When I read the story earlier today I thought it was an obvious case for codigestion at the wastewater treatment works and also for encouraging people to use their food waste disposers, which Philadelphia has been doing. FWD deliver clean ground food waste to the WwTW, they don't increase sewer blockage, they don't increase WwTW's costs, they mean people don't have to store smelly food waste, they don't increase water consumption, they do increase biogas production. All this is in peer-reviewed publications. The most cost effective solution for building new AD for a WwTW serving 220,000 population will be pre-treatment by thermal hydrolysis. This will produce Class-A biosolids. I am from the UK where we have been maximising biogas production for years. I don't sell FWD, thermal hydrolysis of AD.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 25, 2014 at 11:16 am

"encouraging people to use their food waste disposers" seems to me a great way to maximize greenhouse gas production, specifically methane, as the stuff decomposes in the pipes and at the sewage treatment plant.

And food waste disposers definitely increase water use. If you don't wash their output down the drain the drain will clog.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Carla Talbott
a resident of another community
on Apr 25, 2014 at 11:39 am

From this distance it seems to me that a lot more education is needed on the subject before a decision is made. If there are cities with successful methods they should be studied. The worst mistake is a "not invented here" attitude. Others have been doing these things for awhile so P.A. should profit from their knowledge and experience, both positive and negative. Where I live now (after 38 years in P.A.) there is an large garden debris compost operation that produces small mountains of rich black compost which the people can then use, I think at minimal expense. As far as I know there is no composting of other materials at this time. What interests me is the idea of not only dealing with waste but of making it work for us, turning garbage into gold, since the transformation process can produce energy. So I'd look at it with a broader view to not only handling the compost of these various "streams" but to produce energy for the town. The worst idea is trucking it out to be a problem somewhere else, using much gas, creating more pollution from both the trucks and their contents (and it's usually dumped where the less affluent people live...let's be honest about that!) the wear on roads and streets, noise of big trucks. There are issues with this where I live now. Much conflict about a large landfill outside of town that was unfortunately sited on the best agricultural land, which is supposed to be protected, and even worse, much too close to a river and leaching has been a problem. These mountains of refuse (literally!) are not even from our town, they are trucked here from Portland and probably other places. The landfill mountains stink and are an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful setting, in an area increasingly attracting wine and foodie tourism. This foul thing is counter productive to that. It's also on the main highway to the coast. It's run by a huge national, maybe international, company who cares only for profit, has lied about things in the past, including dangerous leaching into the Yamhill River. When I first saw it I wondered what in the world it was. Finally, remember this: Cheap. Quick. High Quality. No matter what is being produced, you can have any 2 of the 3 but you don't get all 3. Great words of wisdom I picked up along the way and it's proven to be 100% correct.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 25, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Palo Altan need to carefully inspect the motives of those that would hi-jack the environmental flag to promote a specific company's development project -- especially where the benefit of "free" public land is inured to the gain of a private company.

If the technology is good, let's put City funds to work. If not, let's get on with finishing the long-delayed promise of a beautiful bay-front playground -- maybe someday we will be a progressive and smart as Mountain View.

Respectfully,

Tim gray


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 25, 2014 at 12:22 pm

One should be very skeptical about expert consultants from the City of San Jose, It would be against their interest to have an Anaerobic Digester in Palo Alto. Remember, to fund there site they needed a guaranteed 15 year feed stream.the did this by imposing a franchise clause on the Commercial Garbage. Which entails About a $4.00 a ton fee. After San Jose Anaerobic digester is paid off That $4.00 a ton, goes back to the city of San Jose. This does not include Tipping fees. Of course San Jose does not want AD in Palo Alto. They want the only AD In Silicon Valley without competition. Watch Garbage rates go through the roof!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Coalition For RNG
a resident of Ohlone School
on Apr 26, 2014 at 2:46 pm

I am a resident of Palo Alto, and live right across the 101 from our own landfill. I also serve as the Executive Director for the Coalition For Renewable Natural Gas (www.rngcoalition.com), which represents each sector of the renewable natural gas (biomethane - pipeline quality biogas - or "RNG") industry. Full disclosure, we exist to advocate for the increased use of RNG for renewable electric power, thermal heat and transportation fuel. Biomethane is the lowest-carbon transportation fuel currently commercially available, and reduces dependence on foreign oil/petroleum and use of natural resources/fossil fuels. Our members have previously or currently develop(ed), own(ed) and or operate(d) each of the 42 High-BTU RNG projects in the US. Public-owned, municipal utilities are our developers' single largest customers. Coalition-initiated legislation (AB 1900 - 2012) signed by Governor Brown will now enable landfills and wastewater treatment plants to be developed in CA, which will reduce GHG emissions by capturing and using the methane rather than flaring it. US EPA's LMOP has identified nearly 300 existing landfills in CA alone that could be developed - with the biogas from those projects potentially transported intrastate via common carrier pipelines. There is also AB 341 recently in effect, that mandates increased diversion of organic waste from landfills up to 75% (up from 50%). There are federal climate change, as well as State clean air and renewable energy goals that incentivize the increased use of RNG for electric power & transportation fuel purposes. Many of these policies are supported by programs (like the RPS authored by our own former Senator Simitian) that provide environmental attributes (RPS/RECs, RFS/RINs, LCFS/Carbon Credits) that can be economized, traded and even sold for value in related markets . All this being said, neither Harvest Power nor We Generation are members, and this project is not on our members' radar. However, as a proud resident of Palo Alto, and acknowledging the tremendous amount of vetting Staff has already done, I would respectfully caution and ask Staff to reconsider and allow the private-sector to develop the project. Rather than "owning" the project and assuming full responsibility of management (etc.), it might be more profitable for the city to instead negotiate a handsome share of any associated environmental attributes (i.e., royalties paid back to the city from the developer). We plan on attending the Council hearing and are happy to serve as an additional resource if helpful.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jan
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 26, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Just make it SAFE and environmentally sound.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Great quote
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2014 at 10:14 pm

"This issue has consumed hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of staff time, huge amounts of Refuse Fund dollars for studies and for delaying closure of the landfill for two years. I guess "not being vetted" means coming out with a result that doesn't fit Peter's hypothesis."

Peter likes commercial construction of all kinds. When he was on the council he approved just about every development in town.


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