Palo Alto's compost dilemma deepens

Study of anaerobic digestion brings new data, sparks old arguments, raises new questions about how city should dispose of food scraps, yard waste

The future of Palo Alto's composting returned to the spotlight Monday night as more than 100 residents packed into City Hall to make their cases on whether the city should build a waste-to-energy plant in Byxbee Park.

The fierce debate, which has pitted some of the city's greenest residents against one another, centers on a 9-acre site that currently houses the city's landfill and that is slated to become parkland when the landfill closes next year. The landfill also includes the city's composting operation, which means the city would have to ship its compost elsewhere in about a year.

A coalition led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier supports a new anaerobic digestion facility, which would convert yard trimmings, food scraps and sewage sludge into energy. A group that includes conservationists Emily Renzel, Tom Jordan and Enid Pearson, think the city should keep industrial facilities away from local parks.

The City Council didn't reach any decisions Monday, but members had plenty to say about the preliminary results of a feasibility study for the new facility. The study, performed by consultant Alternative Resources, Inc., compared the costs of building a local plant to those of shipping yard trimmings and food waste to regional facilities in Gilroy and San Jose, respectively.

The preliminary results of the study indicated that in the first year of operation, the anaerobic digestion plant would cost the city's ratepayers significantly more than shipping waste to other cities (about $100 per ton for the former, around $70 per ton for the latter). The difference in costs, however, would narrow over time.

The council, which is as split on the subject as the community at large, attempted to get a better handle on the complex debate Monday night. But like most of the residents in attendance, council members left with at least as many questions as answers.

"I see we have a lot more work to do," Councilman Pat Burt said after hearing a presentation about the new study.

Councilwoman Karen Holman expressed concerns about the costs of exploring the new facility and called the Byxbee Park land "an unfortunate location for a project that is intending to do good." Burt urged the consultant to focus on the lifetime costs (rather than first-year costs) of processing yard trimmings and food scraps in a local facility. Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh asked the consultants not to assume, when considering the export options, that the city would continue to incinerate its sewage sludge (an assumption embedded the preliminary study).

Councilman Greg Schmid went a step further than his colleagues and urged staff to consider other ways of processing waste and generating energy, including plasma-arc gasification.

"It seems clear from the numbers in the discussion that we are going down a narrow anaerobic-digestion pathway that's risky, expensive and doesn't meet our green goals," Schmid said. "There are valid options other communities in California are looking at, choosing, thinking about and we should be looking at them too -- the sooner the better."

Council members also heard from dozens of community members, including leaders from both camps. Burt was one of several council members who praised the civic participation on this complex and controversial topic.

"I think having the kind of engagement on a subject like this is exceptional, and I think it's a good part of the Palo Alto process and one we should embrace," Burt said.

Residents urged the consultant to include a multitude of other factors in the study, including "carbon adders" (putting a price on carbon emissions resulting from a process), contingency costs for the export options, and the potential costs of replacing Palo Alto's sewage incinerators.

Proponents of the new facility have persistently argued that the new plant would give the city a great opportunity to retire its energy-intensive incinerators.

Drekmeier told the council that if the new anaerobic-digestion plant were to be publicly financed and the factors such as carbon adders and contingency costs for the export options were considered, building a local facility would actually be $38 million cheaper than exporting local yard trimmings and food scraps over a 20-year horizon.

"This is a great opportunity to meet more than half of our goals for climate protection and save the city in the neighborhood of $2 million per year," Drekmeier told the council.

Last week, Drekmeier's group submitted 6,000 signatures to the City Clerk's office to place the land-use issue on the November ballot. If voters support the measure, the parkland would become eligible for hosting a new anaerobic digestion facility.

The proposal to put a plant in Byxbee Park has also generated significant opposition. Several conservationinsts, including Renzel and Pearson, urged the council Monday not to consider building a new waste facility on parkland. Both argued that the cost of the facility would be steep -- far exceeding the cost of shipping yard trimmings and food waste to regional facilities.

"Don't ruin Byxbee Park with an industrial anaerobic digester," Renzel said. "It makes no sense for every small city to make massive capital improvements rather than recognizing economies of scale regionally."

Land-use watchdog Bob Moss also argued against the proposed facility and criticized Drekmeier's cost analysis. He noted that the numbers provided by Drekmeier didn't include the cost of land and the cost of selling bonds for a publicly funded anaerobic digester.

"The one thing certain tonight is the uncertainty of the true costs of digester," Moss said.

After a discussion that lasted close to four hours, the council agreed to return to the subject next month and give staff further direction. Staff and Alternative Resources, Inc., plan to present a draft feasibility study in June and to release the final study in the fall.

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Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 22, 2011 at 12:15 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Greg Schmidt's suggestion that a plasma arc technology should be considered is a reversal of progress, but maybe that was his intent. Plasma arc is basically a new branding of an incinerator, an incinerator wrapped in layers of air pollution control. Many in our campaign have sought the removal of our existing incinerator (one of two in California), and would loathe the introduction of a new dressed-up incinerator in the name of plasma arc. While Schmidt would celebrate that there is but the smallest residual left from the process, plasma arc forms toxics requiring numerous scrubbers to control. Schmidt's motive might be merely to derail the process by introducing a re-start on technology evaluation. Palo Alto can be confident in the standing recommendation of the citizen task force that chose anaerobic digestion.

That the existing sludge incinerator will close further legitimizes the cause of the initiative. When you don't incinerate one needs more land to sustainably manage organics. The current waste water treatment plant does not have this land, and a such the initiative not only furthers local composting, but helps allow the city to move away from an old smoky incinerator.

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Posted by Greg Schmid
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Bob Wenzlau raises a few questions about my statements on Plasma Arc conversion technology. There are certainly questions about any new technology. But the EPA seems to have endorsed the newer Waste to Energy technologies: in the latest paper I have seen (that I got from the EPA website), the authors conclude "Waste to Energy appears to be a better option than [other landfill options]. If the goal is greenhouse gas reduction, the Waste to energy should be considered as an option under US renewable energy policies." (Kaplan, etal, "Is it better to burn or bury waste for clean electricity generation", Envir Sci Technol, 2009, 43, 1711-1717). For a review of use on such technologies in Europe check a recent story in the NY Times "Europe Finds Clean Fuel in Trash; US sits back", April 13, 2010. I'd be delighted if you have more recent science based citations if they say otherwise. In the meantime, Palo Alto should certainly be exploring greener and cheaper technologies that we can do with partner cities.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Besides feeding Drekmeier's ego, why will be voting on the park issue now? This will cost us over $200K to hold this vanity election. we should vote on this as one package--composting and location. Seems to me that some of these environmentalists are out of control with their green agenda

Like this comment
Posted by Susan Stansbury
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 22, 2011 at 1:17 pm

I do not see this issue as one "which has pitted some of the city's greenest residents against one another." While people are passionate on both sides of the issue, the dialog is civil, and certainly I, and the many people I have talked to about this issue do not have any animosity toward those with a differing viewpoint. I think this language is unfortunate. We are a citizenry with intelligent and passionate people. We will not agree on everything, and finding solutions requires the rigor that such a debate creates. Let's embrace it.

As for the initiate, this isn't about feeding anyone's ego. A vote of the people via an initiative is required to un-dedicate the land. The council cannot determine this part of the issue. Un-dedicating the land adjacent to the waste water treatment facility gives the city the ability to continue to handle our food, yard and bio-wastes locally. If they do not end up using it for this purpose, it cannot be used for any other purpose and would ultimately revert to parkland.

However, if we do use the land, other options of land to dedicate that have much higher habitat and scenic value exist at the end of San Antonio Road on the site of the old Los Altos treatment facility and also at the end of the airport. The council could choose to incorporate that land and create a win win solution.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 22, 2011 at 1:21 pm

"A vote of the people via an initiative is required to un-dedicate the land. The council cannot determine this part of the issue. "
But why vote to undedicate the land if we do not know for what it will exactly be used for.
That is why I am for an all-in-one package vote.

"If they do not end up using it for this purpose, it cannot be used for any other purpose and would ultimately revert to parkland."
So we wasted over $200K for a vote and then it will revert to parkland.
Before we waste this kind of money and feed the egos of certain out of control environmentalists, I suggest the council come up with exactly what will the land be used for and then we can vote on that

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm

"Plasma arc is basically a new branding of an incinerator"

Bob, why do you continue to lie about plasma arc? You have been on your self-serving binge of lies, about palsam arc, for far too long.

I am absolutely calling you out, Bob. You are a true believer in anaerobic digestion, which is a very inefficient, and quite limited solution, to our current waste stream. You can continue to believe your own, limited views, all you want, but I will no longer allow you to lie about plasma arc.

Incineration is combustion, plasma arc is not combustion. Period. Get over it, Bob.

It is refreshing that Greg Schmidt is forcing the issue towards more rational choices, like plasam arc.

Like this comment
Posted by horse and cart
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 22, 2011 at 7:15 pm

I agree with svatoid, this initiative is putting the cart before the horse. I do not trust the City Council when it comes to deciding how to use any undedicated parkland.

I resent that this initiative forces an expenditure of $200,000 for a special election when the details are unclear and there is not a project or business plan that is ready for prime time.

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Posted by milton
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 22, 2011 at 10:23 pm

I think that if the city wants to get rid of the sewage treatment plant and pursue a greener alternative, which I do support, the city ought to explore the practical, economical, green options that are available, and not be forced to accept the pet project of a small group of supporters. I remember being asked to sign a petition for this project months ago at the downtown farmers market. My only question to the supporter was, who was going to pay for this thing? Uh, it will save millions over the years, more or less, was the reply. Why does it have to be in the park? It will save millions... I did not sign the petition. Later I learned that Drekmeier was supporting this 'solution' for Palo Alto. Drekmeier seems to be a champion of green at any cost, well, so long as someone else pays for it. Recall his support for the High Speed Rail Project? It's a train, it must be good. It's electric, even better! The say it's 'Green', sold! nuf said.

Like this comment
Posted by Idiots R Us
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 23, 2011 at 1:50 am

Why do we need this on a park??

Now that we are at destroying park land - let us build:

1. Power station in Pardy Park
2. Solar Panels in Mitchel Park
And so on...

NO WONDER we are Idiots!

Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 23, 2011 at 3:05 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

This 10 acre site (8% of the landfill) is the ONLY location where we can take care of our wastes, create energy and compost, reduce green house gas emissions, and save about $4 to $40 million over 20 years.

Bob Moss' quoted argument in the meeting is false. The study DOES include the cost of bonds, specifically 5.25% per year, paid off over 20 years. The rent is a fake cost which the opponents are drumming up to try to kill the project. Rent is not an intrinsic cost of the project, but would be at the Council's discretion, which could choose to charge anywhere from 0 to infinity. It would be a fiscal abrogation of duty for them to tack on a such a high rent as to price themselves out of a project which could otherwise save the city and ratepayers millions of dollars.

To those who style themselves as fiscal conservatives, would you demand that the city pay between $4M to $40M for 10 acres of former landfill to turn it into a treeless park next to the sewage treatment plant? Because that's what it amounts to if you reject this local green energy initiative.

When we started collecting signatures, November 2011 was a regular election year. It was the subsequent passage of Measure S that made it a special election. While the election may cost ~$300K, the project will likely save the city an average of between $200K to $2M per year. This is an excellent return on investment.

As to packaging the vote, we were informed by the then city attorney that we could not bundle the park dededication and the enactment of a specific project together in one package. However, the initiative clearly states that the 10 acres could only be used "for conversion of organic wastes by biological and/or other equally environmentally protective technology" (Web Link). The successful passage of this ballot measure will make the land available for this purpose. After that, it will be up to the City to choose the best technology, do the appropriate EIRs, and decide whether to follow through with the project. Furthermore, "ten years from the passage of this Initiative, the City Council may rededicate any portion of the Property not utilized for the purposes of this Initiative to parkland."

For more details on how this project saves between $4 million and $38 million dollars, I refer you to my analysis of the preliminary feasibility study at Web Link

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 23, 2011 at 6:35 am


The question of rents is a valid one; here are some cases in the past of what the city charges the Utility department (which is passed on to all of us) for rent:

* The city rents a parcel from Stanford on Hansen St for $1/year; it charges the utility department over $150,000/year in rent. (.61 acres)

* The city rents another parcel from Stanford on Hanover St for $1/year, and it charges the utility department over $140,000/year in rent.

* The city rents Mayfield Reservoir for $10,000/year, and charges $756,000/year.

So the rent that the city will charge for 10 acres is at least a couple of million dollars or more. And with the fiscal deficits that the city is projecting due to increasing pension costs, there are several groups who would glady push for this

- city council for one will see this as an easy way to justify raising utility rates to generate more "rents" that will be paid into the general fund to help cover the deficits

- city staff will push for this - helps to pay those pensions and avoid layoffs.

Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 23, 2011 at 9:38 am

"As to packaging the vote, we were informed by the then city attorney that we could not bundle the park dededication and the enactment of a specific project together in one package. "
Then once we decide what to do, we can have a vote on the TWO items during one election.

"Drekmeier seems to be a champion of green at any cost, well, so long as someone else pays for it. "
Milton has accurately described the thought process of the leader of this movement. Let the voter beware.

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 23, 2011 at 9:58 am

It looks like Palo Alto is in DEEP DOO-DOO ( I'd rather use the S word )

over this issue. It's hip wader time...

The SJ Treatment Plant generates it's own operating energy by the digestive process and has done so FOR DECADES....( before the ECO-NUTS started talking about " saving the planet " )

You may want to check out how EUROPEAN FARMERS deal with high energy prices...

Pyrolytic converters are nice until you look at the energy they require...

( I've had training in alternative energy you? )

Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 23, 2011 at 10:32 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Regarding Election Bundling:
At this point, the initiative is at is, deals only with making the land available. We've spent 6 months to gather over 6000 signatures, of which ~4100 need to be valid and unique for it to qualify for the ballot. We have a good margin so, knock on wood, it will qualify, and when it does, the Council is required by law to certify and place it on the ballot. So that will be on the ballot. There is no way Council would have time rush to place a specific project on the ballot for the same election cycle. They'd have finish the feasibility study, complete their deliberations, put out Requests for Proposals, pick a vendor, conduct EIRs, etc. etc. You're dreaming if you think that could happen in time to coincide with this initiative.

The council has been split on this topic, some may have made campaign promises against the project (probably extracted from them before they had sufficient knowledge about it). The uncertainty of whether the voters would even agree to make the land available was a major component of their hesitation, and prevents the City from seeking certain sources of funding. Through this initiative process we are removing this uncertainty, and the huge support we've received so far gives a good indication of the community support for doing something with or wastes locally to generate energy and save money. This frees the council to focus on the nuts and bolts of such a facility and deliberatively choose the best project for the city.

Regarding Rent:
The current study does include some rent based on the value of the use of the land as parkland. Project opponents think the rent should be based on Office/Research rents, as if this weren't a project which is serving a city infrastructure need.

Yes, the council could choose to charge millions of dollars of rent, or none. It is up to them. If they charge too much, they could make the project infeasible, and thereby lose all access to rent money plus force them into a more expensive waste management scenario. Point gun at foot, pull trigger. Oops, that was stupid... I know the Council and Staff are smarter than that.

Now, with a project that saves everyone money, the city could choose to charge just enough rent to level off the utility rates, and bring in additional revenue to the general fund, so we can pay for our parks, fire and police services, libraries, etc. The savings from the project increase over time as the capital expenditure is paid off (and after 20 years, it is all paid off, the price drops to $65/ton compared to $118/ton for incineration and sending our wastes "away", and the comparative savings of this project increase accordingly). As such, if they want to charge higher rent, the thing to do would be to phase in the rent and increase it over time: the project remains feasible and rate payers see flat rates, while the city brings in increasing revenues. Win Win Win.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm

"Pyrolytic converters are nice until you look at the energy they require..."


You will need to support that statement. The current existing plasma arc waste-to-energy plants are net producers of electricity (along with all the other good things that plasma arc accomplishes...they ARE nice!). Please be specific. You need to defend your statment with facts on the ground.

Your training in alternative energy should be helpful to you...according to you.

Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 23, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

The initiative qualified for the ballot today, with 5128 valid signatures. That's almost 25% more signatures than was required.

Great job to the signature gatherers (all volunteers), and the community who so far strongly supports being "green" both environmentally and financially!

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 23, 2011 at 7:41 pm


It is one thing to qualify a measure for the ballot. Gathering signatures is a real effort, but it is not determinative. Remember, the PA fire department accomplished that goal...then they got defeated in the vote. End of story for them.

You anaerobic digestion (AD) zealots now need to convince the PA voters that you have a rational plan for that undedicated park land. The fact is that you don't!

Why waste 10 acres of park land on a silly scheme like AD? It is all "zero waste" fanaticism. We deserve better than that in Palo Alto.

You and yours will need to make your case. It will be an uphill battle, because your 'solution' is not a rational solution.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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