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Palo Alto fails to find compromise in compost debate

Original post made on Apr 30, 2014

After a brief respite, Palo Alto's leading environmentalists are once again clashing over the future of local composting -- a debate that brought a crowd to Tuesday's meeting of the City Council. With no compromise in sight, the council agreed to defer a decision to a later date.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 11:16 PM

Comments (24)

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Posted by John Kelley
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 30, 2014 at 6:37 am

Phil Bobel should be commended not only for his hard work and dedication but also for offering an alternative recommendation that presents a sound compromise.

We should all salute Phil and move together without further acrimony towards embracing the alternative approach he has wisely put forward.


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Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 30, 2014 at 7:44 am

Although I have moved to Capitola, I am still vitally interested in Palo Alto where I was quite active for more than 40 years, especially participating in the four projects described below where we reached a compromise. A key ingredient for putting together the groups was to get people with ALL points of view to sit down together with a willingness to reach a compromise.

It seems to me that IDEO would be interested in working with the City on the this project/proposal/plan.

Four successful facilitated projects:

•••Cable television access programing: 1984/85: Developed guidelines for access, e.g., community-based programming, as part of the franchise process.

•••Individual Review Guidelines: 2001/2002 approximately. Ed Gawf worked with co-chairs John Northway, Annette Ashton and Carroll Harrington to select focus group focusing on selecting participants with different points of view, e.g., the historic preservation ordinance debacle. It took 16 months, but by the time we went to council it was totally vetted...including at least two community meetings, two Planning Commission hearings and getting Richard Alexander to speak on our behalf.

•••Palo Alto Climate Protection Plan: 2008 approximately. About 25 people representing the City, Chamber, environmental organizations and interested citizens. Final facilitation by Steve Bishop, IDEO.

•••Reusable bag ordinance: Approximately 2008 or 2009, It took six months. Phil Bobel ably facilitated a group that had reps from Walgreens, Safeway, California Restaurant Association, Chamber of Commerce, City of Palo Alto, American Chemical Council and interested citizens. An outstanding example here is that Walgreens said that there was not room to have paper bags at its pharmacy checkout counters. They now have paper bags at Walgreens Pharmacy!!!

Green gigabytes of gratitude for great groups with glorious gab!!!


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Posted by Hilary
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 30, 2014 at 8:35 am

It has taken 5 years of "Palo Alto Process" to get to this muddled outcome. Staff recommended a "solution" that will not be implemented until 2022 and even more outrageously does not offer a local composting answer. This IS the Palo Alto Process and is the result of poor leadership that is not able to effectively manage controversy but instead kicks the can.

How are we as a society to deal with the complexity of solving global warming if an enlighted city like ours can't move forward with this project that has such clear green benefits? Disheartening and embarrassing.


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Posted by Palo Alto Grandma
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 30, 2014 at 8:41 am

This article is frustratingly misleading. The Measure E proposal overwhelmingly passed by Palo Alto voters provides 10 acres of the landfill for development of a replacement for the ancient solid waste incinerators which spew 2300 metric tons of GHG into the air every year. That means that in since 2011 Palo Alto has added 6900 metric tons to the atmosphere and you can do the math - the longer we delay, the more we add. Larry Klein is right - this is URGENT.

And the people who voted for Measure E wanted to keep green waste composting in Palo Alto. Since the closure of the landfill, Palo Alto has added substantial amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere by trucking our garbage, recycling and green waste to Sunnyvale, San Jose and Hollister. Yard waste alone accounts for 7 round trips per week - that goes to Hollister. That is not what we wanted. We have to stop this. Putting a green waste composing operation in place quickly on the 3.8 flat acres of Measure E site is a great solution.

I do not understand why the only people in Palo Alto that are deemed "conservationists" are the ones who are doing everything possible, including filing a frivolous lawsuit, to delay the incinerator replacement process, and to try to keep any of the Measure E site from being used, even it if compromised the project. The rest of us who are seriously concerned about consequences of CO2 emissions, including global warming, climate change, sea level rise, and the acidification of the the oceans with its ensuing consequences, are also environmentalists. We are looking forward to the world we are creating for our children and grandchildren and we do NOT like what we see. It's no longer enough to just create parks. As a 21st Century Environmentalist, I cannot condone Palo Alto even considering using carbon-based fuel to ship our waste - sewage sludge, food waste or yard waste - anywhere, when the technology is available to manage it ourselves.

In the process of researching Palo Alto options, our hardworking City Staff found technologies that would replace the incinerators with units that would anaerobically digest the dewatered sewage sludge, would utilize methane captured from the dump for power, and would incorporated food waste into the process and also produce useable power. It also has a green waste composting component. Check it out: Web Link. Washington DC is in the process of building a large installation. The technology is modular, can be sized to fit a city's need, and there are units in place and under construction in the UK and Europe. This is the process that Harvest and We Generation is proposing, and it is available right now. It includes a dewatering unit that could be put in place quickly, allowing the incinerators to be decommissioned expeditiously.

Finally, sea level rise.

Go to Web Link and plot sea level rise of 1 meter. The only part of the Baylands that will not be under water is the landfill, and possibly part of the WTP. If this does not seriously concern you, it should. I cannot begin to imagine the costs of building levees to protect the WTP and the parts of Palo Alto that will be under water. If we do not do as much as we all can to reduce GHG emissions we are passing that along to our children and grandchildren. I somehow do not think they will thank us. We also do not have to wait until sea level rises to that level to feel the effects. It has risen enough that we are at risk from El Nino flooding now.

It's time to stop dragging this process out.


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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 30, 2014 at 10:14 am

Grandma, what do you propose we do with the processed human sewage sludge, once it has gone through the anaerobic process?


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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 10:41 am

So Emily Renzel and her people and Peter Drekmeier and his people meet with city staff in good faith and work out a compromise that meets our city's objective needs, like our city council says it likes things to happen. Then at the last possible minute city staff alters the "compromise" behind closed doors to favor one side's ideology, carefully avoiding informing the other side until the fait is accompli.

That is flatly dishonest. I can think of other characterizations, but the Weekly would rightfully censor them.

OK city council. Now you see why it is so difficult to involve citizens in city process. Their hard work and time investment can be arbitrarily trashed in an instant.


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Posted by A Noun Ea Mus
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 30, 2014 at 11:10 am

Sounds like the city did an end run around the legislative intent (maybe holding "true" to the word) of what was passed by the voters. I wonder what will be the "Pearl Harbor" of climate change it will take. Probably in Palo Alto, as all the planted trees dry out, a heat wave and high winds---- a fire ala Oakland hills.


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Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Apr 30, 2014 at 11:12 am

This appears to be a very divisive issue among a small number of people.

Why not have these people go away, hire a mediator, and play nice until they come up with an agreement. Then let the city council deal with.

Why have the city council get involved in a food fight between 2 groups of people who are unwilling to compromise?

It's not as if this issue has earth-shaking ramifications.


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Posted by Tired of their crap
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 11:21 am

[Post removed.]


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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 1:12 pm

"The Measure E proposal overwhelmingly passed by Palo Alto voters provides 10 acres of the landfill for development of a replacement for the ancient solid waste incinerators which spew 2300 metric tons of GHG into the air every year."

Even if that were correct, the joke's on you.

First, this apparent sabotage of the process delays the replacement of the ancient incinerator, which was part of the package that the council was supposed to review but now won't until much later. That needlessly added months to the incinerator's operation.

Second, voters voted to put a "garbage to energy" thingy on those 10 acres that would be totally out of sight under a "grassy roof" while delivering magic energy to an adoring citizenry. That was the promise, but they will get no such thing. Peter D. & Co. want only to compost leaves and twigs and grass clippings on that land, like Palo Alto did before. Those decaying organics will release many tons of the GHGs CO2 and CH4 into our atmosphere every year, but will generate not one whit of energy.

The Measure E supporters have been had.


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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 30, 2014 at 1:16 pm

The winner last night was the foxes that live in the Baylands property in question. A young lady with a U-Tube presentation was a big winner. Can you put the U-Tube on the web site so everyone can see it?

What the problem here is maintaining the natural animal right of ways that have been carved out in the Baylands.


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Posted by Tired of the crap
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 2:42 pm

I am enjoying the infighting among the local " environmentalists". For too long our city has been held hostage by their outrageous demands and pipe dreams. Time for them to move on.


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Posted by Mike Muller
a resident of Woodside
on Apr 30, 2014 at 3:41 pm

At your February 10 Meeting, this local entrepreneur made recommendations regarding the onsite organics conversion. BIOGAS Equity 2 RFP submission was in line what had been presented to Phil Bobel in May of 2012. Biogas2's submission was rejected because two files were submitted three days past the deadline and as a technology Agent lacked some of the financial backing sought.
Biogas2 recommends to place two UDR AD digesters on the vacant 1/2 acre and keep the food scraps separate from the sewer sludge and take advantage of the gained organic fertilizer that has a value of at four times that of electric energy. The sewer sludge was partially dewatered and separately digested and its fertilizer value is minimal. Biogas from both systems are combined with the landfill gas and converted with CHPs generators to destroy the methane. Biogas2 teamed up with DPR Construction and priced the entire system at $10M with construction time of 18 month after permits.

Your Staff's new proposal is too conservative, extremely expensive ($10M for dewatering alone) and not in the best interest of Palo Alto residence. The objective should be to process waste near where it is generated and minimize trucking for obvious reasons.

Synagro uses decanter centrifuges for sewer sludge dewatering and pelletize the dried biosolids at SMUD. Ading food waste to the mix caused proplems last year. LA started a two year test to add a small amount of food scraps.
Mixing large amounts of food scraps with sewer sludge to gain more electric power is not economical because of fertilizer value loss
We question the CAMBI steam hydrolysis cost benefits because of your low electric cost. There are newer technologies such as cavitation to extract more biogas. Our represented UDR fixed bed register AD technology has proven to generate 30 more biogas over Complete Stirred Tank Reactor systems.
Staff's preference for concrete tanks was popular in the 70s. Today, one uses stainless steel clad steel on tanks that have oxygen present.
Our represented UDR technology is expandable with population growth. It's moveable when sea levels rise
Palo Alto leveraging low interest rate SRF funds is a big benefit to the Biogas2 proposal
By summer, Biogas2 can point at a US reference plant in Michigan and construction of a 9.4MW plant in Grove City, Ohio will be completed in early 2015.
A wet gasification plant converting ocean drift wood will come online this year that will be ideal to eliminate 95% of the digested biosolids together with construction wood, plastics and your yard trimmings
Staff's stretched time table will allow many new technologies to mature and certainly obsolete the proposed ones that have been around for many years.
The Bioenergy Association of California that I co-founded can be very helpful with Staff's CEQA permitting challenge
Leveraging the Biogas2 proposal will allow completion of the waste conversion project by end of 2015 assuming permits received by end of 2014. In early 2016 our represented SRS wet gasification plant can be online after the incinerator has been removed. Why wait till 2020?
Palo Alto can then use the 3.5 acres for green houses, leveraging generated heat and fertilizer for hydroponics and supply Palo Alto's farmers markets year round with fresh produce. Now that will make citizens happy.

We support canceling the initial RFP and BIOGAS Equity 2 will be able to respond to upcoming RFPs.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm

>Mixing large amounts of food scraps with sewer sludge to gain more electric power is not economical because of fertilizer value loss

What does "fertilizer value" mean?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 30, 2014 at 3:50 pm

>A wet gasification plant converting ocean drift wood will come online this year that will be ideal to eliminate 95% of the digested biosolids together with construction wood, plastics and your yard trimmings

What is the gasification method?


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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Found this link on a related thread: www.Web Link

Fascinating.


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Posted by Outside the fray
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 30, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Please forgive me for not being up to speed, but I thought Measure E was billed as being necessary in order to just assess the feasibility and study, get bids, etc. because there was no point in making any plans if voters would never undedicate the parkland for any reason. However, I thought we were promised it wasnt a sure thing the parkland would be gone, but that residents would continue to be involved in choices as things proceeded.

Did I miss something?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 30, 2014 at 9:25 pm

Outside the Fray is spot on.

The Pro E ballot argument reads:

"If 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."


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 1, 2014 at 7:42 am

Yes, we must rally around Emily's point.

If Palo Alto could show that a new environmentally sound way to handle waste that also stood on it's own economic merits, we wanted to provide that opportunity. That needed to include a market rate rent for the 20 acres of Palo Alto land. (we all know that is not a small amount)

Measure E was not a "subsidize a commercial development project at all cost to promote the business interests of some cronies."

It is interesting that those "environmentalist" don't like the plan now that it does not include private developer buddies.

In my book, we have allowed enough time for the studies, as promised to the voters, and it is time to prove the economic feasibility or return the Parklands to the recreational use they were intended.

If the project is built, the expectation would be that the rent charged to the operations would be enough to rent an alternative 20 acres somewhere in Palo Alto. That is only fair and consistent with the historical City policy of departments charging fair market rent to other users.

Any other model, or delay, will be an intentional deception.

Let's get on with what was agreed to in the ballot.

Best regards,

Tim Gray


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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 1, 2014 at 8:31 am

Timothy Grey - you mention an alternative 20 acres "somewhere" Palo Alto. What does that mean? Palo Alto is totally built out to its borders. It sounds like you have a location already identified. Are we filling in the baylands for this effort? Is that why there is a build up of sludge in the baylands? The build up of sludge is a separate issue that will be worked on - to remove it and put the baylands back into a water based environmentally controlled area. It is a flood control area and needs to be treated as such. Build up of sludge is what is contributing to the flooding we are so concerned. with.


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Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 1, 2014 at 12:15 pm

To Resident 1,

Thank you for the question. You reinforce my core point in that we should not take lightly the value of 20 acres of Park land when it cannot be replaced.

There are those that want to treat the 20 acres as "free" since the City already owns it. That would be a deliberate robbery of the Citizens.

Thank you for making the point that the 20 acres is near priceless, and it seems unlikely that any financial feasibility study would justify using 20 acres of valuable Palo Alto land to manufacture gas.

Let's be real, and recognize that our Carbon footprint is not just carbon released in Palo Alto. So perhaps a little trucking to a lesser cost place might pollute, but preserving a few more acres of trees in the foothills (or in another state for that matter) would be much less of a cost, and a greater environmental benefit, than trying to fit a digester here.

While many people accuse Palo Altans of living in a bubble, the fact is that we do not, and our efforts must be based on the greater good of the Planet, not some environmental trophy that feeds a false pride of being "green."

Let's truly be "green" and take a larger view of the carbon equation. Let's truly be "green" and preserve our parklands. When seen in the light of day, the proposals have been another commercial development hiding behind a Green Flag.

Clarity that the land must be returned to the Citizens for recreational use is gained from this larger global view.

I think if we could put the personal interests aside and re-dedicate ourselves to the greater good, we would soon be restoring our bayfront park.

Tim Gray


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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 1, 2014 at 12:44 pm

To Timothy Gray

Hear, Hear


 +   Like this comment
Posted by joe
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 1, 2014 at 9:36 pm

We need all ten acres for for composting,that is what we voted for.


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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 1, 2014 at 10:31 pm

I recall when this was originally passed. We were not in a drought situation, we still had open space, we were not built out to the borders. Look at where we are today - HSR / Electrification will change the Caltrain rail line; we are built out to the borders with pressure to tear down and replace with bigger developments; we have new concerns with the school system that is going through personnel changes; we are at odds over how the downtown city is built out. We are concerned with where our water will come from in the future with drought situations. Our world has shifted dramatically.

Of all the things to be concerned with is a showcase garbage dump? And listening to the presentations it is not convincing that this would produce all that is claimed as to energy production. I feel like the other cities surrounding us are moving ahead on the main quality of life issues. While I think there needs to be an improvement in the current system I think that 20 acres devoted to this function is overkill in the bigger scheme of things. We can do a lot with those 20 acres to satisfy our other commitments our political representatives keep committing us to.

We all appreciate that at the time it was a noble cause that made sense in the bigger scheme of things but the world is moving very fast now with other priorities.


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