If voters agree, the 10 acres that was to have become part of Byxbee Park when the landfill closes next year will instead be available, but not committed, for a facility that would process all the city's table scraps and yard clippings, as well as sewage sludge. The process would also create a significant amount of energy, possibly enough to supply 1.2 to 1.5 percent of the city's annual electricity usage.
A favorable vote on the initiative is a necessary step to give the City Council a viable site if a decision is made to build a state-of-the-art composting facility in Palo Alto.
The effort to "undedicate" 10 acres of previously planned parkland, which just qualified for the ballot, has divided the city's environmental community, with one side fervently opposed to taking away parkland for an industrial facility like an anaerobic digester.
Former City Council member Emily Renzel and others have said the current partnership with Mountain View and Sunnyvale to process the city's compost is working just fine, and that a digester on land due to be part of Byxbee Park would interfere with the park's view shed and degrade the experience of visitors.
But many others, led by former Mayor and City Council member Peter Drekmeier, advocate setting aside a small portion of what is now landfill for a facility that could process all of the city's table scraps and yard trimmings, as well as sludge from the nearby sewage plant. By processing the sludge, the city finally would be able to shut down its long-outdated incinerator, an embarrassment for a community that takes so much pride in its environmental policies and accomplishments.
No matter how much the city wants to be green, in the end financial projections and budget constraints are likely to play a major role in whether the compost facility will ever be built. The preliminary findings of a consultant study shows that in its first year of operations a digestion plant would cost ratepayers about $100 a ton to process compost, while it could be shipped away for around $70 a ton. And even though a 30 per cent contingency was included in the digester cost and trucking carried no inflation factor for fuel cost increases, there could be a significant cost premium in the digester option.
At this point, the City Council has not lined up behind any option. At a recent meeting, there was no consensus on whether the digester was the only viable solution. Some members were concerned about cost, and some about the loss of parkland. Others said the digester proposal is a narrow path that may not give the council enough alternatives given new technologies under development.
At the same meeting, members of the public had plenty of suggestions for the consultants, like including "carbon adders" (placing a price on carbon emissions resulting from the process), contingency costs for the export options and the likely costs of replacing the city's generators.
Drekmeier has argued that costs of a digestion plant would be significantly less (up to $38 million per ton) if it was publicly financed and the carbon and contingency costs were added to the trucking alternative over a 20-year period.
Renzel and her supporters believe that the lower cost for shipping compost out of town is a strong argument against building a digester plant.
"Don't ruin Byxbee Park with an industrial anaerobic digester," she told the council. "It makes no sense for every small city to make massive capital improvements rather than recognizing economies of scale regionally."
That may be true, but many Palo Alto residents are concerned about continuing to fill faraway landfills if there is a viable, though potentially expensive, solution that could contain most of the city's waste at home, including sewage sludge, and even generate some electricity. The question is whether enough voters will be willing to give up a slice of potential parkland to make it possible.
Anaerobic digester plants are installed at many locations in Europe, where it is worth the extra cost to dispose of waste due to a lack of landfill sites. A similar trend is likely to begin in this country, as cities find it is more and more expensive to truck their garbage to landfills many miles away.
The issue will be before the public often in the coming months. After spending four hours on the subject March 21, the council plans to continue the discussion next week, and has promised to give staff more direction. Then in June, staff members and the consultants are scheduled to present a feasibility study and will release the final version in the fall.
In the ideal world, the pros and cons of building a facility will be well identified and studied prior to the November election. But in any case, passage of the initiative to undedicate 10 acres next to the sewage treatment plant should not be viewed as an endorsement of a particular strategy but merely as a vote to create the option of moving forward when and if agreement is reached on the best path forward.