Guest Opinion: Anaerobic digestion would protect the environment and save Palo Altans money | March 26, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 26, 2010

Guest Opinion: Anaerobic digestion would protect the environment and save Palo Altans money

by Peter Drekmeier

Imagine a scenario in which Palo Alto could make tremendous progress on its zero-waste and climate-protection goals while saving more than a million dollars per year. We have this opportunity right now through the creation of an anaerobic digestion facility that could convert our 60,000 tons per year of organic waste into valuable products.

As a longtime environmentalist who grew up in Palo Alto, I care deeply about our baylands, our foothills and other natural areas. As a former member of the Palo Alto City Council, I have been actively engaged in promoting healthy choices for our environment and for people, locally and globally.

In Palo Alto, we presently face an important choice. After months of study by citizens and city officials, we face the decision of whether to keep composting local or to truck our organic waste to a distant site. In the past few years I have become impressed with a technology that offers both environmental protection and revenue generation.

Anaerobic digestion is a technology that uses microorganisms in enclosed vessels to break down organic waste (yard trimmings, food scraps and sewage sludge) into natural gas (methane) and high-quality compost. This process could reduce Palo Alto's greenhouse-gas emissions by 20,000 tons per year.

Anaerobic digestion is a tried and true technology, with more than 15 facilities currently operating in Germany and another nine in the pipeline.

Such a facility would allow the city to retire its sewage-sludge incinerator (one of only two in the state), reducing our community-wide natural-gas consumption by 3 percent while producing renewable energy. It also would save money. Last year we used $800,000 worth of energy to incinerate our sludge, and spent another $230,000 to dispose of the waste ash.

By isolating our sewage sludge from our food and yard waste, we could address any concerns raised by composting the sludge.

By locating the digester in Palo Alto we would ensure that our city receives all of the benefits. Estimated revenues include $1.4 million in annual energy sales, more than $1 million in disposal fees, $200,000 in compost sales and possibly the sale of "carbon credits."

The electricity produced from anaerobic digestion would be enough to power 1,400 homes. This clean locally generated energy would be available during emergencies to keep the wastewater treatment plant operating, even when the grid that transports electricity into Palo Alto goes down, as recently happened.

The facility also would maintain the current convenience to residents of being able to drop off yard trimmings and to pick up compost for their gardens. Without this project, Palo Altans would have to travel to Sunnyvale. An estimated 80 percent of more than 1,000 people who responded to an informal survey by Palo Alto Online favored maintaining a composting facility in Palo Alto.

The challenge is that the only feasible location for an anaerobic digester is at the entrance to the city landfill next to the Wastewater Treatment Plant, not far from where we currently compost. The site already has been heavily impacted by the dump and has little value as wildlife habitat.

The catch is that the landfill is scheduled to become part of the 126-acre Byxbee Park when it closes in 2012, and rezoning about 8 acres would require a citywide vote according to the 1965 Park Dedication Ordinance.

An issue such as this, with strong good-faith opinions on both sides, should be decided by the people. What could be more democratic?

Anaerobic digestion is a clean process, with minimal impacts from noise, odor and dust. Enclosed vessels ensure that it will be much cleaner than our current windrow composting operation, and a "green roof" of native grasses could hide much of the facility from Byxbee Park. Additional trees would help further screen the adjacent Wastewater Treatment Plant.

This isn't a question of a park versus no park. Even with an anaerobic digestion facility, we would still have 93 percent of Byxbee Park, in addition to 2,000 acres of baylands around it, plus 100 percent of the benefits of converting our organic waste into green energy and compost.

To offset the loss of future parkland, we could dedicate an equal amount of land elsewhere in the city. For example, three or four acres of undevelopable land at the old Los Altos Treatment Plant site at the end of San Antonio Road could be restored to wetlands with actual habitat value.

Currently there are no funds dedicated to completing Byxbee Park, which means that even when the dump closes, we are not guaranteed a finished park. By dedicating a portion of the revenues generated from anaerobic digestion, we could facilitate the expeditious transformation of the remaining landfill into usable parkland.

To better help the people and city determine the merits of this project, the council should commission a feasibility study, including a cost/benefit analysis that would allow us to weigh all the pros and cons. The council is scheduled to consider this issue on April 5.

Palo Alto faces a unique opportunity to protect the environment while generating badly needed funds for the city. Let's not pass this up without serious consideration and calm comparison of the pros and cons.

Peter Drekmeier served on the City Council from 2006 through 2009, and served as mayor in 2009. He was a co-founder of Bay Area Action, which later merged with the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation to become Acterra. He currently is Bay Area program director for the Tuolumne River Trust. He can be e-mailed at


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Posted by Bryan Long
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 26, 2010 at 7:45 am

Last year I served on the City's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Composting, looking into how we could continue local municipal composting once our landfill closes in 2012. As soon as we got started, it became obvious that the issue was bigger than whether we should haul our "green bin" yard clippings down to Gilroy for composting. In addition to 21,000 tons of yard clippings, Palo Alto throws about 22,000 tons of food and other compostable materials into our "black bins" and dumpsters, to be dumped in a South San Jose landfill (ours is closed to commercial garbage at this point). We also flush about 16,000 tons of organic waste down our toilets and garbage disposals, which winds up getting incinerated at the water treatment plant. Altogether, that is enough organic waste to cover a football field to the height of City Hall! The thing is, grass, leaves, paper, food waste and even our poop organic are all full of potential energy. There are lots of hungry microbes out there that would love to eat all this stuff and give us a supply of "green" natural gas and high-quality compost as an end product. What do we do instead? For the yard waste, once the local composting operation closes, we will pay people to haul it 50 miles away and compost it, and then we will pay to buy compost for our yards and parks. The food waste that gets dumped into a landfill decomposes and generates methane that escapes to the atmosphere as a powerful greenhouse gas. And the sewage waste? We spend more than a million dollars a year to burn it, using vast quantities of fossil natural gas to do so. Yep, we buy natural gas to burn stuff that we could use to generate natural gas instead. Crazy. Please take a moment to let City Council know you would like them to at least proceed with a feasibility study and let the people vote on whether to sacrifice a small amount of landfill land. You could do this by sending an email to City Council, and/or by signing onto our group letter to City Council.

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Posted by Bryan Long
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 26, 2010 at 7:48 am

More information is available at, along with a link to sign on to an open letter to City Council in support of a feasibility study. You can email City Council at

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Posted by Marvin
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 26, 2010 at 8:24 am

Well, Peter lost me on his first sentence:
"Imagine a scenario in which Palo Alto could make tremendous progress on its zero-waste and climate-protection goals"

Zero Waste is a misnomer and climate protection goals have been carried out in Palo Alto without regard to cost to the citizen in both the financial and social sense.
We now have a city council that has finally gotten rid of the "green at all costs" mantra that has been the driving force behind council decisions for 8+ years. We have finally rid the council of a number of the green zealots and the city will be better for it.

I have a hard time listening to advice from people who do not have to work hard to earn a living as most people do and in a condescending manner lecture the masses on what they should and should not be doing.

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Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 26, 2010 at 11:22 am

Marie is a registered user.

While I agree that zero waste is a misnomer and climate protection is too general a goal to justify a particular project, I strongly support a feasibility study with an emphasis on a cost/benefit analysis for an anaerobic digestion facility. I think that we as a community should take responsibility for our own waste, especially if it is cost effective to do so. The cost of transporting our waste to Sunnyvale and Gilroy, and then on to the Central Valley, will only increase as the cost of gas is certain to increase, IMHO.

Whether cleaner air will protect are climate can be argued - but you can be sure the air will be cleaner and asthmatics will be healthier. Our current incinerator is old technology and needs to be replaced in any case. If this facility can do that at minimal cost without raising rates any higher than they would be raised due to shipping waste out of Palo Alto, we should do it.

I also support replacing the acres needed for the facility with other other dedicated parkland from the Los Altos wastewater facility or elsewhere.

The only other possible location would be to take some land from the airport, of whom only 20% of the users are from Palo Alto according to local news stories. That will not be possible until and unless PA takes over the management of the airport in 2017 although the county might be willing to terminate its lease sooner. Unless the airport can be managed to produce a profit for Palo Alto without additional noise and risk to the community, it should be closed. Right now I believe PA gets $1 rent per year. I think this alternative needs to be considered as well.

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Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 26, 2010 at 11:25 am

Marie is a registered user.

oops - that should be "protect the climate" not
"protect are climate"

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Posted by Ross
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 26, 2010 at 11:28 am

This looks like a great idea. Let's do a feasibility study.

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Posted by KenN
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 26, 2010 at 11:34 am

I agree that a feasibility study is well worth-while. A digester could save the city $1-2 million per year at today's energy and landfill prices. With oil and landfill prices sure to rise in the next 10-20 years, the long term savings will even higher. The enviro advantages are a big plus as well, since someday the California AB32 law (or a federal carbon law) will probably force us to pay even more for shipping our waste around. Can we save money today and avoid hikes tomorrow? Based on what has been proposed so far, and what's been done elsewhere, it's certainly worth a study for Palo Alto.

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Posted by David Coale
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 26, 2010 at 12:10 pm

About 50 years ago, the city had a plan to close the dump and turn it into parkland. 50 years ago global warming was unheard of and gas was 20 cents a gallon! Times change, and so must we.

I think we can have both a good solution to our yard waste, food waste, sewage sludge and parkland. With less then 10% of the total dump land that is now to be parkland we can have it all!

As with any project it is prudent to have a feasibility study to make sure we know all the facts and cost savings. From here it would be a vote of the people to allow this land to be used for this facility. What could be more logical and democratic?

I am actually very excited by this vision of a more sustainable future that produces renewable energy and compost and reduces our greenhouse gas emission all while saving money in the process. All this for just a little bit of existing dump land. What a deal! Let’s get on with a study and see where we stand.

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Posted by marco
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 26, 2010 at 2:41 pm

The Blue Ribbon Task Force convinced me that an anaerobic digestion facility could be placed near the future park with relatively little impact to the use and activities at the park, while providing many benefits. Our City Council ought to move ahead and initiate a feasibility study without delay. The future park is not a wilderness area, after all, and it could never be turned back into one. The waste water treatment facility is nearby and is going to stay where it is, with pipes and tanks that are quite visible; there will be the noise from the airport, and views obstructed by high voltage lines. Let's be realistic. Future visitors to our baylands, whether they be human or animal, would not find the a nearby anaerobic digestion facility to be a detriment to their enjoyment of the rest of the 120+ acres. Indeed, they (the humans) would look upon the facility as a testament to the forward looking people of Palo Alto.

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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 26, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Why are we focusing on anaerobic digestion, when we could leap forward to plasma arc waste disposal? Web Link

Here we are in the heart of Silicon Valley, and we act like we are back in the 1980s, making beer. Plasma arc technology requires a much lower physical footprint, and it has the possibility of being self sustaining, because it can generate electricity. Any feasibility study should be on plasma arc, not anaeorobic digestion.

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Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 26, 2010 at 2:50 pm

I totally agree with Peter Drekmeier and the others who support "updating" Palo Alto's definition of parkland. Altho the legal term seems to be "undedicating," I see it as another "green" use of this land.

While I applaud Enid Pearson, Emily Renzel and others (including me) who worked to save the Baylands in the '60s, I strongly believe that conversion of a mere eight acres to a local organics management facility is adapting to the climate changes that are happening to Palo Alto and the world. We will still have 122 acres of Byxbee Park, plus a beautiful viewshed with the proposed "green roof," landscaping and a trail around the area.

I would also like to see an interpretive center to teach children and adults about the values of composting and zero waste. Perhaps this could be accomplished with the help of the Environmental Volunteers, which will be residing in the former Sea Scouts building.

What a grand vision this can be for Palo Alto! I urge the council to proceed with a survey and/or feasibility study.

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Posted by Annette Isaacson
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 26, 2010 at 3:31 pm

As a teacher at El Carmelo and Walter Hays, I am excited about the possibility of our third graders being able to read interpretive signs explaining anaerobic digestion when they take their field trip to The Baylands and about our sixth graders getting to see some positive actions a community like Palo Alto can take to lower our carbon footprint when they study global warming. Too often our children hear bad news about the environment. The anaerobic digestion plant will offer some hope. I urge the City Council to commission a feasibility study so that we can bring this issue to a vote of the people.

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Posted by Joe Margevicius
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 26, 2010 at 8:26 pm

I was surprised recently to learn that we spend a lot of $$ and carbon footprint in burning our sewerage sludge with natural gas out at the baylands, then hauling the ash into someplace in the central valley (cf: presentation on AD at World Centric last Wednesday). This seems outdated with higher fuel cost and the need to reduce CO2 emissions. Added to this fact is the apparent push to move recycling into other cities, leaving me to wonder where the environmental spirit of Palo Alto that I've known since 1975 is going! The teacher's view above (Annette Isaacson's) of learning by the students about the environment via the AD plant is right on - the next generation's management of the city and the planet would greatly benefit from thinking about waste *before* they buy products, and this functioning plant, or something like it, would really help. Parks are a key part of our serene environment here, but a small piece of our vast park system is a small price to pay for such an addition to our city ... I'm for doing the feasibility study, and perhaps including the arc plasma method which "looks interesting" having read the wikipedia story.

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Posted by Remember the KISS principle
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Anaerobic digestion uses nature (bacteria) to do the job - simple and straight-forward.
Plama arc is a man-made technological nightmare.

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Posted by kissme
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Mar 27, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Biological processes are not simpler than chemical ones.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 28, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Anaerobic is a hazardous process. They just got rid of a comparatively benign chemical plant in EPA. It may well be that our biggest environmental disaster may have been to deny the ocean the unending flow of organic material that sustained ocean life through the eons. Disney science has a lot to answer for.
Sometimes it is better, lest wasteful to toss something and make a replacement than to save it. People who do not understand that, like P. Drek, should not get in the way of people who know what they are doing.

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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 28, 2010 at 3:22 pm

"Plama arc is a man-made technological nightmare"

Well, I suppose you mean that electricity is also a man-made nightmare. It sures does a lot of good, though.

Plasma arc technology involves passing the waste stream through an electric arc, then separating out gases and elements. It is an intense process, thus sparing a major footprint at the Baylands. It has its issues, and needs to be tested locally, but it is hardly a nightmare. It is a realistic possibility of a soluton for Palo Alto.

Anaerobic bacterial digestion is relatively inefficient, and it involves using a lot of industrial complex square footage, compared to plasma arc. Plasma arc also offers a much lower carbon footprint, depending on its configuration.

I would also add that we need to be part of the future, not part of the past. It would be good to have local school kids understand the physics and math of gases and elements and and bonding theory and energy dynamics, as they take their their field trip to the plant. The teachers could, possibly, attend a seminar to get up to speed.

We have an opportunity to leap-frog into the future. Let's take it.

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Posted by Lenore
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 29, 2010 at 1:15 pm

The initial decision to maintain a park once dump closes is a bonus for our city. As Bixbie park is in the process of being completed it seems we need to adapt to the world as it is , not as it was.

Setting aside 8 acres to provide a needed home for composting and income to the city needs to be supported. The City Council is not the same as it was in the 60's and must make rulings for todays situations.

Given that there will still be a Bixbie Park, so many opportunities open up for children's educational programs, compost for local gardens, up to date procedures for waste, etc. Not set aside this really small parcel seems to be legislative regression instead of state of the art systems for what we now need and be forward thinking.

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Posted by Derek
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 29, 2010 at 10:33 pm

I have consistently used the compost available at the landfill. It is actually a fun family activity, along with all of the gardening afterward. I think that the anaerobic process would be great and would be a great dual use of the land. Yes, I know that much smaller part would be dedicated to the digester, but it seems like a great idea.

I don't understand the resistance to the term zero-waste, etc. I guess it's maybe a little contrived, but doesn't it make sense? Let's vote on this!

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Posted by lets speak the truth
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 31, 2010 at 4:50 pm

I find Peter D's argument for the technology, the savings and the placement of the anaerobic digester to be disingenuous and condescending. Turning the old Los Altos Water Treatment Plant into parkland. If that land is available why isn't it the place to put your proposed plant? Peter and the Council had also spoken about swapping for 45 acres of land that is next to the airport runway and bordered by water and is already fenced off. How about park land for parkland Peter? The sewer sludge disposal seems cornerstone to your argument. Is it not true that all of that savings could be realized on the existing Water Treatment Plant land without requiring any parkland? And the "only 8 acres" argument. Aren't you talking about ruining any hope for attractive or decent esthetics for the physical entrance to the park? what is the required buffer zone to avoid the sights, sounds, and smells around those little 8 acres? The comment about no money set aside to create a real park. Are you saying that while you were on the Council you and your Council members took advantage of the funding from the dump but did nothing to set aside funds to accomplish what the voters had mandated long ago? How responsible was that? Maybe it’s better there are no funds, maybe the land will finally return to nature and become land with "actual habitat value".

Lets speak the truth here. Tell us why this is so important and why we need to work on it now? there is nothing compelling in your argument!

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Posted by Remember The KISS Principle
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 31, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Anaerobic digestion has been around forever and is used at many locations.

Where exactly is plasma arc currently used?

Let nature do the work for us (digestion) - or throw a lot of energy around to do it ourselves (plasma arc)

Why do I get the feeling that the plasma arc folks are also advocates for building a nuke plant to power it as well (two wrongs make a right thinking, eh).

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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 31, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Web Link

Please look at this link for existing plasma arc facilities currently being used for city waste streams.

Do you have a similar list of existing facilities for anaerobic digestion of city waste streams?

Anaerobic digestion has serious limitations. Anaerobic microorganisms are unable to break down long chain woody molecules such as lignins. The process takes a long time (days to weeks) to complete. The end product is methane and CO2, both greenhouse gases. It is a 19th Century technology that is not up to the demands of the 21st Century.

Plasma arc does not require nuclear power plants to generate electricity, because it produces gases that can be used to generate the input electrical demand, plus some. Nuclear is a good thing on its own merits, but it does not need to be coupled with plasma arc.

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Posted by EEng
a resident of another community
on May 20, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I'm responding kind of late. I found this article through a Google search and, as an environmental engineer who has worked in the wastewater arena, had to respond to Peter Drekmeier's statement:
"Anaerobic digestion is a tried and true technology, with more than 15 facilities currently operating in Germany and another nine in the pipeline." The first part of his statement is true (and I am assuming the second part is true too). But since Mr. Drekmeier is writing this article in a Palo Alto paper, I find it amusing that he doesn't mention that it is a common part of a wastewater treatment plant's process in the U.S. and definitely in California. In California, there are probably at least 50 municipal wastewater treatment plants that use anaerobic digestion (though they don't all necessarily derive energy from the digesters). The person that said anaerobic [digestion] is a hazardous process doesn't know what he's talking about. I don't know as much about plasma arc though I have heard of it and I know it is seen more outside the U.S. (e.g., Europe, Japan, but still a new technology outside the U.S., as well).

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