Guest Opinion: Vote yes on Measure E | October 7, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 7, 2011

Guest Opinion: Vote yes on Measure E

Why not process waste here, produce energy and reduce greenhouse gases?

by Peter Drekmeier

More than 100 years ago, Palo Altans debated whether or not to establish a municipal utilities district. Fortunately, for every generation since, the pro side won, bringing huge benefits to our community. Our energy has been greener and cheaper than in neighboring communities, and our utilities have generated more than $400 million for Palo Alto's infrastructure and city services.

Today we face a similar decision. Should we repurpose eight percent of our retired dump for a state-of-the-art renewable energy and composting facility? Such a facility would produce enough biogas (green energy) to power 1,400 homes, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 20,000 tons per year compared to current practices, and save ratepayers millions of dollars.

Measure E provides an option to pursue this sustainable path. It will repurpose up to 10 acres of heavily-impacted land directly adjacent to the sewage treatment plant "for the exclusive purpose of building a facility for converting yard trimmings, food waste, other municipal organics and/or sewage sludge from the regional wastewater treatment plant by biological and/or other environmentally equally protective technology."

A photo of the site is available at

Measure E poses zero risk. It does not determine any specific technology, and it does not require that a project be built. If the City Council determines a new facility is not cost-effective, they may rededicate the land as park after 10 years, or sooner with a public vote.

The real risk is losing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

To assess the benefits of a waste-to-energy facility, City Council commissioned an exhaustive feasibility study. It found that anaerobic digestion, a process using microorganisms in enclosed containers to break down organic waste into biogas (renewable energy) and compost, would not only be good for the environment, but also for the city's finances. Under the financial scenario deemed most realistic by staff, anaerobic digestion would likely save at least $18 million over the first 20 years when compared to any other alternative for processing our organic waste.

After the facility is paid off, our savings will become even greater, while the alternatives would become more expensive. The projected Year-20 cost for anaerobic digestion is $53 per ton, vs. $123 per ton for the export alternative favored by opponents of Measure E.

The Feasibility Study is available for all to review at

So, what is the alternative if Measure E fails? We will continue to truck our food and yard waste to Gilroy and San Jose, requiring 450,000 vehicle miles per year at an annual cost of $2 million, and generating thousands of tons of greenhouse gases.

Defeat of Measure E poses a huge risk. It would put us at the mercy of rising fuel costs and a vendor who could charge whatever the market will bear for limited waste-processing capacity in a world of increasing demand.

Opponents of Measure E argue we should use wet anaerobic digestion to process our sewage sludge alone, and continue to truck our food and yard waste to Gilroy and San Jose. This would be a huge mistake. By scaling up such a wet digester, we could process our food waste along with our sludge, a tried-and-true technology being used in thousands of communities, including several in the Bay Area. The digestate (leftover material) could then be composted with our yard waste to handle all three organic waste streams locally. Staff has indicated this would be a likely scenario if Measure E passes.

Food waste contains three times the energy of sewage sludge, so by exporting it, we would be paying someone else to turn our resource into their energy. Let's keep that valuable renewable energy right here in Palo Alto.

In 1965, when it was determined the entire dump would be converted to parkland upon closure, the world was a very different place. Lyndon Johnson was president, the Vietnam War was heating up, the world's population was half what it is today, and climate change was an unknown problem. Times have changed, and so should our priorities.

It's time to focus less on the past and more on the future. Measure E will help bring huge environmental and financial benefits to Palo Alto. Let's keep this option alive. Vote YES on Measure E!

For a list of Measure E endorsers, please visit

Peter Drekmeier has worked on local, regional and international environmental issues for the past 25 years. He was elected to the Palo Alto City Council in 2005 and served as mayor in 2009.


Posted by Penny, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 7, 2011 at 8:38 am

Thanks for the clear articulation of the real value of supporting Measure E. We take care of our own waste and we benefit not only Palo Alto, but the greater world environment.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 7, 2011 at 8:48 am

"Measure E poses zero risk. It does not determine any specific technology, and it does not require that a project be built. If the City Council determines a new facility is not cost-effective, they may rededicate the land as park after 10 years, or sooner with a public vote."

So why bother wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on this vote??? Why not decide what kind of technology we want and then bring both issues to the voters?
This is a waste of money, but not surprising that the writer has no qualms about that.Vote no on Measure E--we do not know what we are getting oursleves in for and I ,personally, do not trust the judgement of the writer of this editorial.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2011 at 8:59 am

It does seem that they are slicing the baloney kind of thin on this one. Can anyone explain to me why we need to take this vote now, when we really don't know what we want to do? Why not wait until a plan is in place and then vote up or down on the plan AND the land?

Posted by Mary H, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 7, 2011 at 9:13 am

Well said Peter! Measure E gives Palo Alto the opportunity to put in place technology that would increase our options to manage, and monetize, our own organic waste streams as well as to minimize the impact our waste disposal has on our community and those around us. It also gives Palo Alto insurance against future cost escalation for transporting and disposing organic waste. And it would put Palo Alto in the company of communities world-wide in an active environmental effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Vote YES on Measure E!

Posted by CarolynC, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2011 at 10:13 am

The timing is absolutely on target for Measure E. The dump having closed a few months ago, now's the time to undedicate the 10 acres that Measure E asks for--the first step toward keeping control of our organic waste. It's pass Measure E or get locked into trucking yard & food waste to facilities in Gilroy & San Jose--forever--& letting the company that owns them both make money off the organic waste we produce. Let's keep it local. YES on Measure E.

Posted by Debbie Mytels, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2011 at 10:52 am

We are voting on Measure E because over 6,000 Palo Altans have asked us to do so.

Palo Altans wisely established the Park Dedication ordinance many years ago. The aim was to protect parkland from development, and the law requires agreement from a majority of voters before we can change parkland dedication. This is a smart law, and it is now giving us the opportunity to have an important community dialogue about how we will handle the waste stream we residents generate.

The question before us is simple: should Palo Alto continue to consider using 10 acres of our just-closed dump, right next to the sewage treatment plant, as a waste-to-energy site? If we vote "yes," then the city staff can continue its analysis of what technology should be used and how to finance it. While the initial financial projections look good — the City’s Feasibility Study says we may save around $1 million/year in costs — Measure E only allows us to continue the analysis and planning for use of proven anerobic digestion technologies. If it doesn't pencil out, the 10 acres goes back to being set aside for parkland.

Going further without identifying a site would be the true waste of money, compared to the cost of having an election and this democratic community discussion.

I’ve been walking precincts on behalf of Measure E. The overwhelming response of neighbors I’ve talked with has been positive. When people understand what Measure E provides, they say, “Makes sense. I’ll vote yes.” That’s why you’re seeing so many Yes on E yard signs all over town.

Posted by Well, yes, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 7, 2011 at 11:54 am

"our utilities have generated more than $400 million for Palo Alto's infrastructure and city services."

OK, but that money wasn't really generated by the utilities, it was paid by the residents of Palo Alto. And using it for infrastructure and city services should have required a 2/3 approval vote. Not in the technical legal sense but in the civic sense or sense of the laws' intent.

Furthermore, if our current infrastructure and city services were laudable, this would be more impressive. As it is, it appears that much of the money was either used inefficiently or squandered; we have infrastructure backlogs and an inability to provide the levels of service we once took for granted.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm

"I’ve been walking precincts on behalf of Measure E. The overwhelming response of neighbors I’ve talked with has been positive."

Then what are the pro E people worried about?/ why bother with the editorials and the debates if the overwhelming response is positive?
Even worse, why bother polluting the environment with yard signs??? And this from a group of people who claim to be environmentalists.

Vote no on E.

Posted by volunteers Ok, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm

If the city arrange for this new facility to be run by volunteers, and so no salaries ,or full coverage Health benefits, or any fat retirement pensions are spent: I am all for it. but to hire Utility Employes! I don't think so!!

Posted by yesorno, a resident of Southgate
on Oct 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm

We must say yes even though we think it is better off if it is no,we have no choice.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Debbie, thanks for the explanation. I guess I don't buy the reasoning though - un-dedicating the park land before we decide what to do seems to put the cart before the horse. It reminds me of the HSR process - vote for the bond before seeing the real plan. We know how that has turned out.

I would rather see a fully worked out plan before taking the step of un-dedicating parkland. This seems like a procedure chosen by an interest group that wants get their way, vs. fully vet the plan.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 7, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Quite right, Me Too. The HSR boondoggle should be a lesson for us--this is shaping up to be a repeat. Still have not heard from the Drekmeier gang why we cannot have 1 vote on both issues (undedication of parkland and form of composting) in a future election--why we have to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on this now. Of course, money is no object to those that never have to earn any.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm

I find that the pro-Measure E cost-benefits analysis to be inflated for the following reasons:

1) Prior city actions has changed the building codes to reduce water consumption, which heavily affects the landscaping choices that owners can have in the future, which amounts to alot less compost per homeowner. Does anyone recall what's happen in the last few years as homeowners has recycled more, and how that made our utilities bills go higher because of the "fixed costs" built into the utility operation? I feel that establishing a big composting facility driving the fixed costs higher, while we all are doing more & more to reduce our composting needs.

2) Through incentives, the city could encourage each homeowner to do their own composting, reducing the composting even more.

3) More could be done to distribute the composting throughout the city at the parks, the community gardens, etc. By co-locating composting at these locations, the transportation costs using the compost at the parks and community gardens is reduced alot.

All of the above would reduce the amount of compost being transported in the scenario of keeping the land as a park; it would also reduce the amount of "power" generated if a compost facility were built.

The analysis by the pro-Measure E doesn't factor these alternatives in, and I'm afraid this big facility will just be another big fixed cost that ends up driving our utility bills even higher.

Posted by Alex DiGiorgio, a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2011 at 3:34 pm

YES on E!

Peter Drekmeier speaks to the future of Palo Alto by internalizing the lessons of the past.

Many Palo Altans who care deeply about parkland, the environment, and fiscal responsibility want to move beyond the status quo of trucking our waste to other communities and incinerating our sewage at a cost of millions of dollars a year.

In addition to the thousands of Palo Altans who acted to put Measure E on the ballot, the following organizations have endorsed the 'YES on E' Campaign:

• Santa Clara County Democratic Party

• Green Party of Santa Clara County

• Peninsula Democratic Coalition

• Dean Democratic Club of Silicon Valley

• Silicon Valley Action Network

• Acterra

• Clean Coalition

• American Muslim Voice Foundation

• Students for a Sustainable Stanford

• The Climate Foundation

Measure E is the first step toward a more sustainable Palo Alto. The trade off is 10 acres of the dump adjacent to the regional sewage treatment plant; the opportunity is to become a more self-reliant and ecologically responsible community.

We can transform our organic waste into valuable resources, rather than continue to exhaust our limited resources by exporting our waste.

Please join the above organizations, and thousands of your fellow Palo Altans, by voting YES on Measure E.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm

I went to some of the websites mentioned above and see nothing about MEasure E. where exactly is Alex getting these claims of endorsements from?

AS others pointed out this is another HSR-style boondoggle in the making.
Why are we letting out of town agitators tell us how to spend our money? Why are we even having this election now?
Money is no object to people like Alex and Peter.
Vote no on E.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 7, 2011 at 9:42 pm

"Measure E poses zero risk. It does not determine any specific technology" (Peter D.)

So, Peter, are you saying the the BEST environmentally appropriate technology will used, including plasma arc?

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 8, 2011 at 9:21 am

@Alex DiGiorgio - I don't know if those groups have endorsed or not, but since most are not focused on Palo Alto (and in fact you, whoever you are, don't seem to live here, per your handle, despite using "we" and "our" a lot in your post), who cares? I'm sure there are many who would be happy to see Palo Alto blow its money trying something that might not work - why not? Just as I'm sure the waste hauler groups would endorse the other side. The point is that this is a Palo Alto parkland and budget issue, and the perspective that matters is that of Palo Alto voters and taxpayers, not outside interest groups.

Posted by Rebecca White, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 2, 2011 at 1:49 pm

I'll be voting No on E, and I want a sign for my yard!


1. Byxbee Park is invaluable to our community.
2. We have a waste management solution that works.
3. Outsourcing is not a 'bad' thing--Palo Alto's history of self-sufficiency is remarkable but not necessarily tenable.
4. I don't believe it's possible to predict the effect on wildlife of such a move; such grand confidences are dangerous.
5. I grew up walking, riding bikes, and bird-watching throughout our Baylands, and I want my child to have the same experience.

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