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.