Today we face a similar decision. Should we repurpose eight percent of our retired dump for a state-of-the-art renewable energy and composting facility? Such a facility would produce enough biogas (green energy) to power 1,400 homes, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 20,000 tons per year compared to current practices, and save ratepayers millions of dollars.
Measure E provides an option to pursue this sustainable path. It will repurpose up to 10 acres of heavily-impacted land directly adjacent to the sewage treatment plant "for the exclusive purpose of building a facility for converting yard trimmings, food waste, other municipal organics and/or sewage sludge from the regional wastewater treatment plant by biological and/or other environmentally equally protective technology."
A photo of the site is available at www.PAGreenEnergy.org.
Measure E poses zero risk. It does not determine any specific technology, and it does not require that a project be built. If the City Council determines a new facility is not cost-effective, they may rededicate the land as park after 10 years, or sooner with a public vote.
The real risk is losing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
To assess the benefits of a waste-to-energy facility, City Council commissioned an exhaustive feasibility study. It found that anaerobic digestion, a process using microorganisms in enclosed containers to break down organic waste into biogas (renewable energy) and compost, would not only be good for the environment, but also for the city's finances. Under the financial scenario deemed most realistic by staff, anaerobic digestion would likely save at least $18 million over the first 20 years when compared to any other alternative for processing our organic waste.
After the facility is paid off, our savings will become even greater, while the alternatives would become more expensive. The projected Year-20 cost for anaerobic digestion is $53 per ton, vs. $123 per ton for the export alternative favored by opponents of Measure E.
The Feasibility Study is available for all to review at www.CityOfPaloAlto.org/EnergyCompost.
So, what is the alternative if Measure E fails? We will continue to truck our food and yard waste to Gilroy and San Jose, requiring 450,000 vehicle miles per year at an annual cost of $2 million, and generating thousands of tons of greenhouse gases.
Defeat of Measure E poses a huge risk. It would put us at the mercy of rising fuel costs and a vendor who could charge whatever the market will bear for limited waste-processing capacity in a world of increasing demand.
Opponents of Measure E argue we should use wet anaerobic digestion to process our sewage sludge alone, and continue to truck our food and yard waste to Gilroy and San Jose. This would be a huge mistake. By scaling up such a wet digester, we could process our food waste along with our sludge, a tried-and-true technology being used in thousands of communities, including several in the Bay Area. The digestate (leftover material) could then be composted with our yard waste to handle all three organic waste streams locally. Staff has indicated this would be a likely scenario if Measure E passes.
Food waste contains three times the energy of sewage sludge, so by exporting it, we would be paying someone else to turn our resource into their energy. Let's keep that valuable renewable energy right here in Palo Alto.
In 1965, when it was determined the entire dump would be converted to parkland upon closure, the world was a very different place. Lyndon Johnson was president, the Vietnam War was heating up, the world's population was half what it is today, and climate change was an unknown problem. Times have changed, and so should our priorities.
It's time to focus less on the past and more on the future. Measure E will help bring huge environmental and financial benefits to Palo Alto. Let's keep this option alive. Vote YES on Measure E!
For a list of Measure E endorsers, please visit www.PAGreenEnergy.org/endorsers.
Peter Drekmeier has worked on local, regional and international environmental issues for the past 25 years. He was elected to the Palo Alto City Council in 2005 and served as mayor in 2009.