An ambitious and divisive proposal to build a waste-to-energy plant in Byxbee Park won cautious praise from Palo Alto's utility commissioners Wednesday night.
The Utilities Advisory Commission discussed the preliminary results from a study that looked at the potential costs of building an anaerobic digestion facility -- a plant that would convert local food scraps, yard trimmings and sewage sludge into electricity. Commissioners didn't endorse the project, citing a host of unanswered questions about its costs, but they agreed that a local anaerobic digestion facility would bring a host of environmental benefits to Palo Alto.
Chief among these benefits is retiring the incinerators that currently burn Palo Alto's sewage sludge, Vice Chair Jon Foster said. He echoed several public speakers who characterized this practice as an embarrassment for a city that takes such pride in its green accomplishments.
"For us to be burning our biosolids is terrible," Foster said. "It's expensive and the contributions to the environment couldn't possibly be worse.
"We should send a message to the City Council that we should absolutely move forward in the direction that would lead to the closure of the incinerator," Foster said.
Commissioners briefly discussed the facility's energy potential and agreed that while the project holds great promise, it's too early to have a serious discussion about whether the city should pursue it. Palo Alto's consultant, Alternative Resources, Inc., released the preliminary feasibility study last month and is scheduled to complete the final study in September.
Early numbers show that processing Palo Alto's yard trimmings, food waste and sewage sludge in a local anaerobic digestion facility would cost the city more than $100 per ton, while shipping yard trimmings to Gilroy and food waste to San Jose would cost about $70 per ton.
Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, a leading proponent of building a local plant, said the numbers are skewed because they don't consider the fact that without a new facility, the city would have to retrofit its existing incinerators or build a new one -- a project that he said would cost tens of millions of dollars.
Drekmeier is leading a drive to "undedicate" a roughly 9-acre portion of parkland at the site of the existing landfill. The landfill is scheduled to close next year, at which time the land is slated to revert to parkland.
Drekmeier's coalition, the Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiative, has already collected enough signatures to place the issue on the November ballot.
Other residents, including former Councilwoman Emily Renzel and former Vice Mayor Enid Pearson, oppose the use of parkland for an industrial waste operation. Renzel pointed out at Wednesday night's meeting that the city is already conducting a separate master plan for the Regional Water Quality Control Plant -- a plan that would consider Palo Alto's options for processing sewage.
"I think you need to understand that the biggest energy and greenhouse-gas savings can occur by just dealing with the water-quality plant," Renzel told the commission. "You do not need to take parkland and build a power plant there."
The commission stayed away from the thorny land-use issue and focused on the plant's capacity to supply gas and electricity. The facility's generator would produce between 1.5 and 2 megawatts -- enough to supply between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of the city's annual electricity usage, according to a report from Jon Abendschein, a resource planner at the Utilities Department. It would also nudge the city toward its goal of getting 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015, the report stated.
Foster called the energy-generation component of the project "fabulous" and the "holy grail" of locally generated renewable energy. His colleagues agreed, though they also acknowledged that this green project would also have to make financial sense to get their endorsement. Commissioner Steve Eglash said there are "a lot of wonderful reasons for doing this," but also warned against entering a situation in which the utility would pay "exorbitantly high rates" to subsidize the project.
Commissioner Marilyn Keller agreed.
"There's a lot of things we don't know," Keller said. "I won't say, 'Yes, at any cost.'"