As a longtime environmentalist who grew up in Palo Alto, I care deeply about our baylands, our foothills and other natural areas. As a former member of the Palo Alto City Council, I have been actively engaged in promoting healthy choices for our environment and for people, locally and globally.
In Palo Alto, we presently face an important choice. After months of study by citizens and city officials, we face the decision of whether to keep composting local or to truck our organic waste to a distant site. In the past few years I have become impressed with a technology that offers both environmental protection and revenue generation.
Anaerobic digestion is a technology that uses microorganisms in enclosed vessels to break down organic waste (yard trimmings, food scraps and sewage sludge) into natural gas (methane) and high-quality compost. This process could reduce Palo Alto's greenhouse-gas emissions by 20,000 tons per year.
Anaerobic digestion is a tried and true technology, with more than 15 facilities currently operating in Germany and another nine in the pipeline.
Such a facility would allow the city to retire its sewage-sludge incinerator (one of only two in the state), reducing our community-wide natural-gas consumption by 3 percent while producing renewable energy. It also would save money. Last year we used $800,000 worth of energy to incinerate our sludge, and spent another $230,000 to dispose of the waste ash.
By isolating our sewage sludge from our food and yard waste, we could address any concerns raised by composting the sludge.
By locating the digester in Palo Alto we would ensure that our city receives all of the benefits. Estimated revenues include $1.4 million in annual energy sales, more than $1 million in disposal fees, $200,000 in compost sales and possibly the sale of "carbon credits."
The electricity produced from anaerobic digestion would be enough to power 1,400 homes. This clean locally generated energy would be available during emergencies to keep the wastewater treatment plant operating, even when the grid that transports electricity into Palo Alto goes down, as recently happened.
The facility also would maintain the current convenience to residents of being able to drop off yard trimmings and to pick up compost for their gardens. Without this project, Palo Altans would have to travel to Sunnyvale. An estimated 80 percent of more than 1,000 people who responded to an informal survey by Palo Alto Online favored maintaining a composting facility in Palo Alto.
The challenge is that the only feasible location for an anaerobic digester is at the entrance to the city landfill next to the Wastewater Treatment Plant, not far from where we currently compost. The site already has been heavily impacted by the dump and has little value as wildlife habitat.
The catch is that the landfill is scheduled to become part of the 126-acre Byxbee Park when it closes in 2012, and rezoning about 8 acres would require a citywide vote according to the 1965 Park Dedication Ordinance.
An issue such as this, with strong good-faith opinions on both sides, should be decided by the people. What could be more democratic?
Anaerobic digestion is a clean process, with minimal impacts from noise, odor and dust. Enclosed vessels ensure that it will be much cleaner than our current windrow composting operation, and a "green roof" of native grasses could hide much of the facility from Byxbee Park. Additional trees would help further screen the adjacent Wastewater Treatment Plant.
This isn't a question of a park versus no park. Even with an anaerobic digestion facility, we would still have 93 percent of Byxbee Park, in addition to 2,000 acres of baylands around it, plus 100 percent of the benefits of converting our organic waste into green energy and compost.
To offset the loss of future parkland, we could dedicate an equal amount of land elsewhere in the city. For example, three or four acres of undevelopable land at the old Los Altos Treatment Plant site at the end of San Antonio Road could be restored to wetlands with actual habitat value.
Currently there are no funds dedicated to completing Byxbee Park, which means that even when the dump closes, we are not guaranteed a finished park. By dedicating a portion of the revenues generated from anaerobic digestion, we could facilitate the expeditious transformation of the remaining landfill into usable parkland.
To better help the people and city determine the merits of this project, the council should commission a feasibility study, including a cost/benefit analysis that would allow us to weigh all the pros and cons. The council is scheduled to consider this issue on April 5.
Palo Alto faces a unique opportunity to protect the environment while generating badly needed funds for the city. Let's not pass this up without serious consideration and calm comparison of the pros and cons.