What they heard was that when it comes to new waste-processing technologies, there are no cheap or simple options.
The standing-room-only crowd of about 60 people at the Lucie Stern Community Center Wednesday got an early peek at the feasibility study for a local anaerobic-digestion plant — a proposal that continues to both inspire and outrage Palo Alto's green leaders. The plant would process local yard trimmings, food scraps and sewage and convert the materials into methane, which could then be used as natural gas or converted to electricity.
The study, which Public Works staff and consultant James Binder from the firm Alternative Resources, Inc., presented, indicates that top composting technology comes with a hefty price tag. If Palo Alto were to build a plant, it would end up paying more to dispose of each ton of organic waste than if the waste were shipped to other facilities in the region.
The draft study considers four different potential uses for anaerobic-digestion, varying only by what the city does with biosolids. In each scenario, the city would use dry anaerobic digestion for yard trimmings and food waste. The cost of processing waste would amount to more than $100 per ton (in two scenarios, close to $200 per ton).
Shipping local yard trimmings and food waste to facilities in Gilroy and San Jose would cost about $70 per ton, the study shows, though this figure doesn't consider factors such as the rising cost of gasoline. This option also assumes that Palo Alto would continue to incinerate its sewage sludge — a practice that many local environmentalists want to see come to an end.
Binder told the Weekly that the capital costs for a local anaerobic-digestion plant could range between $25 million to $100 million, depending on the type of technology the city chooses and the plant's capacity.
"There is quite a variation of costs for the different types of technologies," Binder said at the meeting.
So far, anaerobic digestion has been used primarily in Europe, with countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain taking the lead in the emerging field. Each country uses the technology in a different way and for a different objective, Binder said.
The European companies also tend to have different priorities than Palo Alto when it comes to waste management. Their main objective, Binder said, is to reduce the volume of material heading to the landfill. They don't particularly care about the compost product, he said.
In Palo Alto, by contrast, composting is a top concern. The city's current composting facility is located at a landfill at Byxbee Park, at the end of Embarcadero Road. The landfill is scheduled to close next year, at which time the site is slated to become parkland. A large coalition of environmentalists, led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, is calling for the city to build the anaerobic-digestion plant on a 9-acre site in Byxbee, next to the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, so that the city could take care of its own waste and retire the incinerators.
Other environmentalists, including former Vice Mayor Emily Renzel and former City Councilwoman Enid Pearson, favor parkland. If that were to happen, Palo Alto's food waste and yard trimmings would then be shipped to a composting facility in Gilroy.
The council is similarly split about the proposed plant. In April, members voted 5-4 to conduct the feasibility study. The council also voted 5-4 to have staff evaluate regional opportunities for waste management.
To make the Byxbee land available for a plant, city voters would need to "undedicate" the dedicated parkland site. Drekmeier's coalition has already received the required number of signatures to place the issue on the November ballot.
Tom Jordan, a land-use attorney who opposes a new plant, argued Wednesday that the Baylands site is actually owned by the state, rather than the city, and that Palo Alto can't build a waste facility on land it doesn't own. Last week, Jordan, Renzel and Pearson filed a petition with the State Lands Commission asking the agency to enforce its ownership of the land.
"The city does not own the land and does not have permission to build on the land," Jordan said at the meeting.
Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel said the city and the state have long disagreed over who owns the Baylands. Palo Alto and the State Lands Commission have an agreement that allows the city to lease the land at no cost. The lease also requires Palo Alto to modify its lease with the state if it wants to build in the Baylands.
Bobel also noted that the city already has several different agreements with the state relating to waste-management facilities in the Baylands, including the landfill and the wastewater plant.
Renzel pointed out that the preliminary report didn't consider what it would cost to redesign Byxbee Park in the event of a new plant. The study also does not consider the costs of compensating for the plant's impacts or building a green roof on the facility, she wrote in a letter. All these factors could add to the price tag of a local facility.
But plant supporters suggested that the figures in the preliminary study may in fact exaggerate the cost differences between building a plant in Palo Alto and shipping organic waste elsewhere. The study adds a 30 percent "contingency cost" to the options involving a local anaerobic-digestion facility but does not add such costs to the alternatives involving exportation of waste. Walt Hays, who is supporting a local plant, said the city should add contingency costs to the latter alternatives because of uncertainties over how much exporting waste would ultimately cost.
Drekmeier submitted a letter that also voiced concerns about the study's addition of contingency costs to the Palo Alto options but not to the San Jose one. He also wrote that the study doesn't consider the cost of continuing to incinerate sewage sludge. If Palo Alto stays on the current path, it would have to bear the costs of retrofitting its incinerators and of bringing them in compliance with new air-quality regulations.
"This makes the cost of continuing to incinerate biosolids artificially low," Drekmeier wrote.
The City Council is scheduled to review the draft feasibility study in late March. The final study is scheduled to be released in the fall.
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