Palo Alto's heated debate over the future of local composting reignited Monday night, with both supporters and opponents of a new facility pointing to a newly released analysis to support their position.
The analysis, performed by consulting firm Alternative Resources, Inc., evaluates the costs and environmental impacts of building a new anaerobic digestion facility, which would process local food waste, yard trimmings and possibly sewage sludge. It also considers the costs of exporting local food waste and yard trimmings to San Jose and Gilroy after Palo Alto's landfill closes on July 28.
But while the 37-page report weighs a wide range of factors, including different financing methods, contingency fees and carbon adders, it does not answer the central question of whether it would be cheaper to build a new waste-to-energy plant in Byxbee Park or to ship waste elsewhere.
"The Alternatives studied to date are close enough in costs that it does not appear warranted to eliminate any of them from further consideration at this time," Phil Bobel, the city's environmental compliance manager, wrote in a staff report.
The draft report suggests that a waste-to-energy facility could be economically feasible in Palo Alto, but only if a series of uncertain assumptions prove true. The report found that the building a local plant would be cheaper than exporting if the plant is publicly owned, if the project receives a lucrative bank loan and a grant covering 15 percent of construction costs, and if a "carbon adder" is considered in the calculations. This scenario would also assume that the city wouldn't charge rent for the Baylands site -- an assumption that critics of the proposed facility say should be reconsidered.
Because of the uncertainty of these assumption and the relatively close cost comparisons, staff determined that both the local and the export options are feasible. The council voted 8-0 to direct staff to finalize the study by October.
While the study brought forth new information about the costs of various compost options, it did little to sway the two sides in the debate. One group, led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier is lobbying for the city to build the new facility at Byxbee Park, a proposal that would require voters to "undedicated" a 10-acre portion of park land. Drekmeier's group has already gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the November ballot.
Drekmeier noted at the council meeting that the new projections show that the city would save about $30 million over 20 years if it were to build the new facility. The savings would only increase over time, once the plant is fully financed, he said.
"This is an opportunity for us to not make a mistake," Drekmeier said.
But opponents questioned the numbers and challenged the assumptions behind these calculations. Former council members Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson both spoke out against the new plant, saying that city has no business putting a waste facility on public parkland.
Renzel characterized the latest analysis as a "confusing mix of statistics" that began with data from "self-interested technology vendors and massaged in-house with inflation rates varying from 0 percent on rent to 5 percent on the fictional carbon adder."
"Rather than providing you and the public with a realistic estimate of costs of the technology, staff and the consultant have provided you with figures manipulated to try to make the technology look 'feasible,'" she said.
Pearson said there were 44 landfills around the bay in 1961. All but the Palo Alto one have since been closed. She asked the council not to pursue a new waste facility at Byxbee Park.
"An AD (anaerobic digestor) in our Baylands is total opposite to the goal of freeing our bay of such facilities," Pearson said.
The council, which voted 5-4 last year to fund the feasibility study, limited its comments on Monday to technical questions about the analysis. Council members generally agreed that both sides in the debate could draw favorable conclusions from the debate, depending on which assumptions they deem valid.
"If 1A works, it is certainly the economic scenario that makes the biggest bang for your buck," said Councilman Greg Scharff, referring to the scenario that assumes a publicly funded local facility, grants and carbon adders. "But if you take 1A off the table, it's clearly sending (waste) to Gilroy or San Jose that makes the most economic sense on this."
The council will resume the conversation in the fall, once the voters have their say on the undedication of parkland. If residents agree to make the site available, staff will come back to the council with other options, including proposals for further analyses.