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.