Report boosts backers of new compost plant | June 24, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 24, 2011

Report boosts backers of new compost plant

Analysis shows city could save money by building a waste-to-energy plant in Baylands

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto could save millions by building a waste-to-energy plant in the Baylands, according to a new analysis that is likely to further stoke one of the city's hottest debates.

The analysis, which the City Council will discuss Monday night, is being heralded as welcome news by proponents of the proposed anaerobic digestion plant — a facility that would process compost and produce electricity. In November, city voters will decide whether to make a 10-acre site at the 126-acre Byxbee Park, located in the Baylands, available for such a facility.

The debate over the city's composting options was prompted by the imminent closure of the city's landfill, which includes a composting operation. The conversion of the landfill to parkland means the city would have to ship its yard trimmings and food waste to Gilroy or San Jose. A coalition called the Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiative, led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, has been lobbying the council to build the new plant and keep composting local.

The revised analysis, performed by the Massachusetts firm Alternative Resources, Inc., compared the costs of building the new plant versus shipping local food and yard waste elsewhere. Its draft report concluded that "several of the lower cost AD (anaerobic digestion) technology cases are less costly or competitive with export options." This is particularly true for the option that involves processing yard trimmings, food scraps and biosolids in a dry anaerobic digester at the landfill site. Other local options include building a more expensive "wet" anaerobic digester at the site of the Regional Water Quality Control Plant.

The new analysis shows that the cheapest local alternative would cost the city about $58.6 million over 20 years. The analysis also includes a "high-cost range" of $201 million for this alternative, though this range is viewed as unrealistic and based on much larger facilities than the one that would be built in Palo Alto.

"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," the report states. "The higher cost systems typically become more economically competitive when larger quantities of these materials are available."

The various export alternatives, meanwhile, have price tags ranging from $77.5 million to $139.5 million, according to the report. These options entail shipping local food scraps and yard trimmings to other facilities while keeping the processing of sewage waste local. The city currently incinerates its biosolids, a source of embarrassment to a city that takes pride in being green. The export options include continuing to burn biosolids in a new incinerator or processing them in a wet-anaerobic digestion facility.

Drekmeier called the new financial projections "very positive for anaerobic digestion," particularly if the facility is publicly owned and the city doesn't charge rent for the site. He noted that under the report's best-case scenario, the city's tipping fees would be $69 per ton in the first year and $32 per ton in year 20 if a dry anaerobic digester were built. By contrast, the cheapest export option would entail a tipping fee of $97 in the first year and $121 in year 20. Drekmeier said this amounts to potential savings of about $30 million over 20 years.

These numbers, however, are based on a number of assumptions that may not materialize. For one, the scenario that makes the strongest economical case for a local plant assumes public ownership of a new plant (a proposition that the report admits is risky), public financing and a 15 percent grant for construction of the new facility. It also now includes a "carbon adder" (a $20 addition for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted) and a 15 percent "contingency" for exports. Both the carbon adder and the contingency fee make exporting less attractive in the consultant's economic model.

Furthermore, the report claims that a "public model," while cheaper, comes with its own risks and challenges. The consultant recommends handing over operations (and risks) of a new plant to a private company.

The private options, the report states, are "the most advantageous means to provide for development of an AD technology facility as they place financing, design, build and operational responsibility on the private company as well as the responsibilities of ownership."

Hiring a private company to run the facility would raise the tipping fees in year 20 of the plant's operation to either $50 or $73 per ton, depending on such factors as rent and contingency fees. While the "public model" projects a cost of $58.6 million for the cheapest anaerobic-digestion option, the cost for a private option would range from about $72 million to $96.2 million.

The numbers in the new report are unlikely to sway opponents of the new facility, including prominent conservationists Emily Renzel, Tom Jordan and Enid Pearson. Opponents of Drekmeier's initiative have persistently argued against building a new waste facility at Byxbee Park, characterizing this proposal as a betrayal of the city's promise to its voters to add the land to the park.

The council will consider the new results and discuss the city's next steps Monday night at its meeting in City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 22, 2011 at 10:21 am

This is an encouraging report, but begs the question as to why putting it on what is supposed to be parkland. Are there not other venues that provide the same benefits?

Posted by Joe, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 22, 2011 at 10:54 am

> Are there not other venues that provide the same benefits?

Sure, close the airport and put it there.

Posted by Vicky ching, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 22, 2011 at 10:55 am

Will we have a financing plan for the construction when the council votes on it? Should their votes be based on a consultant's estimate without knowing how we are going to pay for it?

Posted by Dennis, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 22, 2011 at 11:15 am

I'll go out on a limb here and bet that the proponents of Compost Plant Project x.n believe in global warming with its tidal rise predictions. So why advocate for a location doomed to be underwater, literally and financially, due to baylands flooding? Maybe Goldman Sachs is in the background along with JP Morgan crafting an FDS - Flood Destruction Swap (Code named: Atlantis Swamp Swap.)

Posted by Lois Fowkes, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Part of the point of recycling our waste anaerobically is to capture the methane emitted, thus saving on electricity generation for the sewage treatment plant. Producing methane somewhere else than where it's going to be used just adds another cost component to the mix. Doesn't it make sense, logistically and financially, to keep our waste treatment facilities all in one place? The sewage treatment plant is already there, and is a regional facility. If it needs to be protected against baylands flooding in the future, any treatment options can receive a comprehensive approach.

Posted by trish, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 22, 2011 at 3:32 pm

The Council will just be receiving an information update next Monday; so no vote. And since the facility will be adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant, we probably can "assume" any infrastructure improvements to address sea level rise can protect both.

Posted by bill kelly, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 23, 2011 at 8:26 am

I'm really annoyed that many in Palo Alto want a park over a dump, so we can ship out refuse away and not see it. I think the dump stands as a constant reminder to our consumerist instincts; want a reality check? Go take a sump load and see the amount of crap we throw out. Now we as false greeners will close the dump convert it into a park (that will spew methane for years) and send out crap to somewhere else where we can't see it.


At least the power plant would do something productive with all out excess consumerism.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 24, 2011 at 8:14 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.


You asked why this location for organics management?

The center point of any local organic management must be in the environs of our sewage plant at the end of Embarcadero Road. As such, the sanitary landfill (dump) made the most sense after the Council rejected use of lands at and adjacent to the airport.

Being near the sewage plant is key because it results in a more efficient and effective solution. Broadly we gain efficiency in biological treatment by combined treatment of yard, food and sewage sludges, and the necessary skills and infrastructure for biological treatment are intrinsic to the sewage plant and its staff. Also, a key effectiveness benefit sought is closing the sludge incinerator - one of two still operating in California.

This is a paper park only, so there is no taking of developed parks - we are debating over 10 acres of highly disturbed land. A City Council action in the 1960s dedicated the landfill to parkland but was not aware of today's progress toward recycling and composting to eliminate waste disposal all together. The Council then just thought to fill a canyon somewhere else - and we know no one seeks that solution. Today removing 10 acres from park dedication is an appropriate course correction for fiscal reasons (based on the consulting reports) as well as environmental reasons. The Task Force found additional lands that are less disturbed, and available that would make a superior dedication.


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 24, 2011 at 12:07 pm

The salient, but ignored, sentence from this study is, "The City of Palo Alto, California, is currently seeking to determine the best means for managing food scraps, yard trimmings and biosolids."

With tunnel vision, the City of Palo Alto is doing nothing of the sort. It is following a preconceived agends of the "zero waste" zealots. Anaerobic digestion (AD)is inferior, in many respects, to plasma arc solid waste to energy approaches. The very firm that wrote this study has also published studies affirming this fact.

Only one city councilman, Greg Schmidt, has done his research. He is truly open to alternatives that really work.

I challenge anyone, on this site, to take me on in a debate comparing plasma arc and AD. I especially welcome Bob Wenzlau and Peter Drekmier to put themselves out here. At a minimum, Bob will have to concede that plasma arc is NOT a form of incineration, as he has previously stated.

In the meatime, let's vote "no" on this 9 acre diversion from our future should not be wasted on inferior projects.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Right on Craig. Well said. We have already seen the issues that come with this "zero waste" plan--higher garbage fees and recycling fees for PA residents. This part was not considered in the thinking that went into "zero waste".
This AD facility is Drekmeier's folly and should be rejected by the public in November. Given Drekmeier's history, I am not sure why so many residents are blindly followinghim

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 24, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

There is a discussion of our campaign's rationale not support plasma arc.

The USEPA is authority relied upon that defined plasma arc as a form of incineration.

A link to our discussion is here.

Web Link

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 24, 2011 at 8:25 pm


A misinformed government definition does not make it so. For example, it mentions plasma arc incinerator...which does not exist, period. Incineration involves combustion, while plasma arc involves thermolytic cracking of molecules, without combustion (there is no supplied oxygen). To make it easy to understand, if a used tire is thrown into an incinerator, black smoke comes out the stack; put the same tire into a plasma arc converter, and there is no black smoke...just invisible useful gases.

I believe I asked you once before (or maybe it was some other true believer in zero waste): Who made the presentation to your task force about plasma arc. Be specific, give his name and company or university. You say it happened, so you should be able to provide the name and circumstances.

Then you talk about AD producing less CO2, because plasma arc fully convets all the organic molecules into energy-producing syngas, which is then used to fuel a generator, while reduing the residual (inorganic) material to slag. You claim that AD is superior becasue it is less effiicent (it cannot digest lignin and some other tough wood molecules) and this undigested stuff is spread out into environment. Duh?!! Did it ever occur to you that these lignins are digested by fungi in the environment, releasing their fixed carbon as CO2? Plasma arc makes more electricity per ton of waste than AD, but it does NOT produce more greenhouse gases, as you stated.

Then you talk about difficulty permitting plasma arc, becasue "envionmentalists" will fight it. A real environmentlist would applaud plasma arc, because it is far superior in many environmental categories, compared to AD.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by neighbor, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 24, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Craig -- Can you be civil in discussing pros and cons? If you are so confident that you are "right" and the other side is wrong, why not make your case on its merits?

Why the personal attacks on other residents who disagree with you?
Your tactics will certainly backfire.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 24, 2011 at 10:15 pm

"In summary, plasma arc (and infrared) units without
afterburners were unintentionally included in the revised
definition of incinerator."

Web Link

I add this federal government clarification to show how Bob W. and his crowd are being disingenuous.

I have been around this town too long to just play nice and pretend that wild schemes, perpetrated as "green", should continue to get a pass. Bob W. and Peter D. and their crowd have crossed the line, and I intend to call them on it.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 27, 2011 at 1:43 pm

When the anaerobic digestion promoters talk about the wonderful compost that will be produced from the sewage sludge, they might have a difficult time convincing the organic farmers and gardeners about their product:

Web Link

It turns out that there is some real concern out there about sewage much so, that the term had to be expunged from our language (it is now called "biosolids").

It doesn't bother me, either way, because I approve of compost, in general, even slightly toxic compost (just don't use up a bunch of our potential park land to make it!), but it seems to bother some potential users of such compost. This concern could realistically have negative consequence on the compost produced from a composting scheme in Palo Alto, using our sewage sludge. Has this concern been addressed by the proponents of this composting industrial plant on our future park lands?

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