What supporters of Measure E are saying:
"Building a composting facility in Palo Alto would likely save the city at least $18 million over 20 years." (From official Argument in Favor of Measure E)
This figure is shaky at best. It refers to a dry anaerobic digester that would take care of all three waste streams -- a largely unproven technology. Costs would rise significantly for a wet anaerobic digester or other alternatives. In fact, the city's consultant, Alternative Resources, Inc. (ARI), found that "higher cost AD technologies present costs which are significantly more expensive than either the lower cost AD technologies or the export (hauling to San Jose or Gilroy) case." The consultants concluded that a dry anaerobic digester could indeed be cheaper than the exporting options, but only if such factors as carbon adders, state and federal grants and contingency costs for exports are added into the mix. For the combination of dry and wet anaerobic digestion, the costs of building a new facility would exceed the exporting costs.
"The current plan for handling our organic waste ... includes continuing to incinerate our sewage sludge" at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant. (From official Argument in Favor of Measure E)
Proponents of E state that incinerating sewage sludge expends more than $1 million in energy and releases "thousands of tons of harmful emissions," and then they ask, "Which option would cost the least and be the best for the environment?" This question is a red herring. A "no" vote on E would not be a vote for continuing to incinerate sewage sludge at the water-treatment plant. Planning for the regional wastewater facility is already ongoing and separate from Measure E, and options for handling sludge in the future include wet anaerobic digestion and other methods, according to the city's Feasibility Study.
"This technology -- micro-organisms in closed tanks -- is not new. Thousands of plants operate in the U.S. and worldwide." (From "Yes on E" campaign flyer)
While it's true that anaerobic digestion is "not new," combining three waste streams into an anaerobic digestion facility is an unproven method. The city's Compost Task Force evaluated a host of "advanced technologies" and concluded that "there are few commercial facilities with operating permits in North America for advanced technologies," which includes anaerobic digestion. Public Works staff also noted in a recent report that the cheapest option in the analysis -- placing biosolids, food scraps and yard trimmings into three separate dry anaerobic digesters -- is the "least demonstrated" scenario of the ones evaluated by the city's consultant.
What opponents of Measure E are saying:
"When the government looks to our parks for public works projects, and voters allow it, no park will ever be safe from such land grabs. Once irreplaceable parkland is gone, it's gone forever." (From official Argument Against Measure E.")
Even if voters were to undedicate the 10-acre site, the undedication would not affect any other Palo Alto parkland, nor would it have to permanently impact the 10 acres. Proponents of Measure E correctly point out that if voters pass the measure and the new facility doesn't get built, the council could "rededicate" the parkland in 10 years (voters could rededicate it sooner than that). Furthermore, the only facility that Measure E would allow to get built on the site would be a composting plant. City Attorney Molly Stump wrote in her impartial analysis of Measure E that "the land would sit fallow unless and until a Composting Facility were built."
The plant is "expensive and extravagant -- vague cost estimates range from $111 million to $268 million." (From "No on E" campaign flyer)
The $268 million figure is probably far too steep. It comes from the "high-cost" estimate in the ARI study, which applies to much larger facilities than Palo Alto is exploring. The report also includes a low-cost range for various anaerobic digestion scenarios. These options range from $96 million for a dry anaerobic digester to about $133 million for a wet anaerobic digester under the scenario favored by staff. The consultants concluded that it is "likely that the lower cost options would provide a suitable system for the City with the quantities of food scraps and yard trimmings available in the City." Utilities staff also noted in a recent report that the high and low estimates don't represent a "range" so much as a choice between two options.
The proposed plant "provides only 1 percent of the city's power demand at a huge cost." (From official Argument Against Measure E.")
Opponents slightly low-ball the estimates from the city's Utilities Department, which projected in a March report that the generator from the proposed plant would produce 1.5 to 2 megawatts of electricity, enough to fulfill between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of the city's annual electricity usage. Though a small percentage of the city's overall electric load, the electricity would help the city reach its goal of drawing 33 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2015.