The battle between Palo Alto's environmentalists over the future of local composting resumed Wednesday night when both sides of the debate packed into a meeting to learn more about the costs of building a local waste-to-energy plant.
What they learned was that when it comes to new waste-processing technologies, there are no cheap or simple options.
A standing-room-only crowd of about 60 people met at the Lucie Stern Community Center Wednesday to get 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 these 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 Wednesday, indicates that top composting technology comes with a hefty price tag. If Palo Alto were to build an anaerobic-digestion plant, it would have to pay more to dispose of each ton of organic waste than if it shipped this waste to other facilities in the region.
The draft study that staff and the consultant presented Wednesday considers four different potential uses for a local anaerobic-digestion plant. In each scenario, the city would use dry anaerobic digestion for yard trimmings and food waste. The only variable is what the city does with biosolids. In each case, the cost of processing waste in an anaerobic-digestion plant amounts 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 about $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. The landfill is scheduled to close next year, at which time the site is slated to convert to parkland. A large coalition of environmentalists, led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, is calling for the city to build a new anaerobic-digestion plant at a 9-acre site in the landfill, 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 Councilwoman Enid Pearson, counter that Byxbee Park should revert to public parkland when the landfill closes. If that happens, Palo Alto's food waste and yard trimmings would then be shipped to a composting facility in Gilroy.
The City Council is similarly split about the proposed plant. In April, the council 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 Park land available for a new waste-to-energy 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 at Byxbee Park, 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 something 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 if the city were to build the new plant. The study also does not consider the costs of mitigating 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 building a local facility.
But supporters of the plant 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 biosolids. 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.