News

Renewable-energy plant debuts in north San Jose

Facility -- the largest in the world to use dry anaerobic-digestion technology -- has implications for Palo Alto

A facility that can turn people's food scraps and yard trimmings into energy and compost opened in north San Jose Nov. 22, and some Palo Alto leaders are hailing it as an encouraging sign that the city might be able to build one, too.

The low-lying, concrete-and-steel structure sits atop 23 acres of San Jose's former landfill, next to the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge off Highway 237. It is the world's largest plant to employ a technology called "dry-fermentation anaerobic digestion," according to Zero Waste Energy Development Company, which built the plant.

Using bacteria and an oxygen-deprived environment, the process breaks down matter so that it releases a gas, methane, that can be used for electricity and auto fuel. The remaining waste is treated, turning it into compost.

"We're doing what nature does, very efficiently and in a controlled way," Eric Herbert, CEO of Zero Waste Energy, said at the grand opening. "What takes nature years, we're doing in a matter of days."

Two years ago, Palo Alto voters agreed to set aside 10 acres in the Baylands as the potential site for a facility that would convert the city's organic waste -- the refuse that is neither recyclable nor considered garbage -- into energy and compost. At the time, proponents of Measure E cited anaerobic digestion as a promising technology.

In early 2014, Palo Alto staff is scheduled to update the City Council on plans for the Baylands site. The city has been reviewing proposals from local waste-management companies to build the Baylands waste-to-energy operation, or otherwise handle the city's organic waste. Staff is expected to provide an analysis of the bids, including their financial feasibility.

Unlike San Jose, Palo Alto has asked for plans to also treat the city's sewage sludge, or "biosolids." Handling that waste has been a point of contention between supporters and opponents of a Baylands facility, as has the desire to build a plant in Palo Alto rather than drive the organic waste to another city.

In concept, the San Jose plant could take and process Palo Alto's food and yard waste, according to Emily Hanson, director of business development and communications for Zero Waste Energy and GreenWaste of Palo Alto, a related firm that hauls the city's refuse.

"We would love to accept Palo Alto's waste," Hanson said of the new plant, which now processes the City of San Jose's commercial refuse.

Currently, GreenWaste takes Palo Alto's food scraps and yard trimmings to Gilroy, where its turned into compost, minus the methane.

GreenWaste's contract with Palo Alto is set to expire in 2017, with possible one-year extensions, she said.

GreenWaste of Palo Alto has already submitted a bid to handle the city's future organic waste, Hanson said. It doesn't propose building a facility in the Baylands but would plan to continue processing food and yard waste in Gilroy. The bid includes the option to use the new San Jose waste-to-energy facility instead. GreenWaste has partnered with a separate firm that would handle the city's biosolids.

Palo Alto Councilman Marc Berman, who toured the new facility, said he's taking a wait-and-see attitude regarding the San Jose plant's implication for Palo Alto's plans.

"It is both a sign that the concept works (and could work in Palo Alto) and that there is a viable alternative for Palo Alto to export its food scraps and yard trimmings, but not biowaste," Berman said. "At the same time, it's important to note that this is just one model (dry fermentation anaerobic digestion), and Palo Alto's request-for-proposal invites proposals for other types as well.

"For me personally, it's a great opportunity to see exactly how such a facility would look and work," Berman said. "Of course, this was just the grand opening. It will be even more informative to see how things go over the first 4-6 months in operation at the facility as we're deciding what the best path forward is for Palo Alto."

Councilwoman Liz Kniss also attended the opening and emphasized local voters' desire for Palo Alto to build its own plant.

"Although there may be a push to use San Jose's facility, I think the overwhelming vote two years ago indicates Palo Alto's intent to have a facility here," Kniss said.

Nonetheless, she said, "Being able to see that another city has accomplished this, seemingly successfully, will spur us forward as we make decisions regarding our own plant in the next few months."

Environmentalists who opposed and supported Measure E also toured the new plant. Former councilwoman Emily Renzel, who believes the Baylands should be preserved as a park and not host a facility, was circumspect.

"It doesn't have any direct impact on the process going on right now," she said, noting that the city already sends its yard and food waste to be composted in Gilroy.

Environmental attorney Walt Hays, who serves on a city advisory committee on the Baylands plant, called the opening "inspiring."

"We could be a regional facility as well," he said. Several firms' proposals have indicated that other cities could send their waste to a Palo Alto plant. The cities would pay for the service, so Palo Alto would receive revenue for the operations, Hays said.

Echoing an argument made during the Measure E campaign, he asserted that -- although processing food and some yard waste at the San Jose digestion plant would be possible -- the greenhouse gases produced by trucks carrying waste down there would be counterproductive.

This past January, the council voted to postpone capping 51 acres of the city's now-closed landfill at the end of Embarcadero Road (capping would place a layer of dirt on top to prevent methane and other gases from escaping). The decision to not cap 51 acres was made to allow for the best possible siting of a waste-to-energy plant, should one be financially feasible, councilmembers said at the time.

San Jose's renewable-energy plant is undergoing final preparations and by Dec. 16 will launch its operations, said Rich Cristina, president of Zero Waste Energy.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by 4E
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Nov 25, 2013 at 5:56 pm

San Jose has a garbage plant. We want one too.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 25, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Measure E promised to handle the human sewage sludge, using anaerobic digestion, at the Palo Alto sewage plant. Is anybody claiming that anymore?

[Portion removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 26, 2013 at 11:16 am

Perhaps I was a little too circumspect in my comment. The San Jose Dry Fermentation Anaerobic Digester (AD) will be handling Food Scraps only. As Emily Hansen of GreenWaste pointed out, GreenWaste has the contract to process our food scraps until 2017 and could take them to the SJ AD if they choose or continue to process them at ZBest. Only a small amount of yard trimmings will be processed at the San Jose AD facility as a bulking material.

The current proposals being considered by Palo Alto must include processing or export of biosolids (sewage sludge), so any process here would have to be a WET anaerobic digester. Yard Trimmings are not readily processed in either Dry AD or Wet AD and have very little net energy value so they will probably just be composted wherever the location.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Chutzpah
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 26, 2013 at 12:32 pm

In the category of opinionated hypocrisy: Walt Hays says that it would be counterproductive to truck PA wastes to San Jose because of the Greenhouse gases produced, but it would be great for other towns to truck their wastes to a PA facility. Apparently the trucks from other towns only produce greenhouse gases in those towns.
You can't make that stuff up.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 26, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I'd think rail would be more ecological than trucks. We have a railroad direct from Palo Alto to within spittin distance of Z-Best's compost heap 50 miles south of here. But maybe not enough weight or volume or distance to make much difference. Or nobody wants a collection & transfer facility in the middle of town.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike Muller
a resident of Woodside
on Nov 26, 2013 at 1:16 pm

It's good to finally see an anaerobic digestion plant come online in San Jose. As a representative of the newest German AD technology, I made a proposal in May of 2012 to Phil Bobel (I wish him a fast recovery from his illness) to build two digesters inside the waste water treatment plant perimeter. This August, BIOGAS Equity 2 was one of six respondents to an incredibly complicated 400 page RFP. We worked hard on the response and succeeded to process all food and yard wastes as well as the sewer sludge on the 1/2 acre site inside the WWTP. We also suggested that once the incinerator is removed, we would be ready with the next generation wet gasification process to process the AD digested biosolids. Furthermore, we suggested to use some of the measure E set aside land to build a hydroponic greenhouse facility that would use the generated AD heat to grow organic products year round for distribution to Palo Alto residents.
Well, I dropped off a supplement to our timely RFP response 3 days late and were disqualified for this technicality.... yet we are hopeful for another chance.... especially when a 8.4MW AD facility will operate in Ohio in a year using all of the technology we have proposed to Palo Alto.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Bike Commuter
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 26, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Why are we still incinerating our sewage sludge in Palo Alto?
This is increasing local air pollution and carbon emissions.

From: Web Link

A Palo Alto anaerobic digestion plant "could reduce City emissions by up to 20,000 tons of CO2 per year, which is more than 2.5% of the total emissions from all sources for the Palo Alto community. It would eliminate the incineration of the sewage sludge from the wastewater treatment plant (6,000 tons per year) and the waste ash from this process."


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Bike Commuter
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 26, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Palo Alto's incinerators spew approximately 11 lbs of MERCURY EMISSIONS per year!

source: www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/26923/


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Brandy F.
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 26, 2013 at 1:33 pm

While having the option to truck our waste to San Jose is certainly nice, it wouldn't help us achieve the lofty greenhouse gas goals that we've set for ourselves as a city. The overwhelming sentiment among voting Palo Altan's was that we should lead the way by taking responsibility for our own waste. Processing our own organic waste would not only help keep our footprint small, but it would be a revenue stream for the City - remember, we're in the unique position of owning our own utility. It's no longer about "saving the land", it's now about a larger imperative: "saving the planet". Without the latter, you can't have the former...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 26, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

The statement by Council member Liz Kniss and commenter such as Brandy F. are false. The voters did NOT vote to have a composting facility. The ballot measure, the official arguments and the campaigning by the proponents was to *preserve* the *option* of building one by postponing the decision on conversion to parkland so that more studies on the composting facility could be done.

If the proponents wanted a commitment to build one, they should have written their ballot measure to state such. It is the height of dishonest to advertise the measure as NOT making such a commitment, and then recast it after the votes are in as making a commitment.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 26, 2013 at 3:11 pm

>The overwhelming sentiment among voting Palo Altan's was that we should lead the way by taking responsibility for our own waste.

This thing was sold as taking care of human sewage sludge. Are you clinging to that promise? If so, where will the compost, resulting from that sewage sludge, with all the toxins involved, go?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Brandy F.
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 26, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Actually, Palo Altan's know exactly what they voted for. The Measure E ballot text was very clear (a quick Google search brings it up ad nauseam). It will address Craig's question about sewage sludge as well.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 26, 2013 at 5:13 pm

>Actually, Palo Altan's know exactly what they voted for. The Measure E ballot text was very clear (a quick Google search brings it up ad nauseam). It will address Craig's question about sewage sludge as well.

Brandy, please do your Google search, then tell us how human sewage sludge will be handled by anaerobic digestion, as promised.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peters folly
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 26, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Brandy, like Liz kniss, is unfamiliar with the wording of measure E

Web Link
"'On November 8, 2011 Palo Alto voters approved Measure "E", which undedicated 10 acres of Byxbee Park adjacent to the sewage treatment plant (the Regional Water Quality Control Plant or RWQCP) for a ten year period while an Energy/Compost Facility is considered for the site. The facility could, if approved, utilize food scraps, yard trimmings and wastewater solids in the production of energy and compost. "

Note that it says that an energy/compost facility is considered for the site.
Any more questions, brandy?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 26, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Above poster is incorrect, relying on a summational news article rather than the Measure E text itself. Measure E rezoned the site specifically for the purpose of organics management:

"The land-use designation of the property... shall be changed from Public Parks to Major Institutions/Public facilities"
...
"The Property shall be removed from dedication as parkland, 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."

The 10 year clause allows the Council to rededicate any portion not used for this purpose, 10 years from the election, back to parkland.

To Doug Moran's point, my understanding is that legal and practical considerations were such that the Measure did not dictate that a facility MUST be built, or that it has to be a particular technology. Decisions such as these require careful consideration, negotiations, and contracts which make it impractical to dictate through the ballot box.

The city has issued a Request for Proposals and received thorough, solid bids. When the details and analysis are released to Council and the public, I believe the city will have good comprehensive and competitive options before it.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peters folly
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 26, 2013 at 8:30 pm

Peters pal does not provide any link to his claim. Note that he agrees with Doug's comment that the measure does not dictate that a facility must be built. The comment I provided basically says the same thing.
So what is your point, Cedric? You agree the measure does not say a facility has to be built. My comment , also states that a facility would have to be approved. Measure E simply undedicated the parkland for 10 years to CONSIDER building a facility.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 27, 2013 at 12:54 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Link to complete text of measure E: Web Link

It is misleading to imply that measure E was merely to enable us to "consider" an energy and/or compost facility, without any sort of voter preference for which way such a consideration would go.

2011's two-to-one Yes On E vote actually changed the zoning "for the exclusive purpose of building a facility", and the findings under "The people find and declare that..." are quite clear about the intent of the measure.

To an earlier point regarding Green House Gases (GHG) from trucking organics "away" versus trucking food scraps in from other cities, the total truck miles to send all our organics "away" is much greater than the likely radius for bringing food in. Plus, food scraps have the highest energy per ton, thus maximizing their economic and GHG-offset values for the city.

While finished compost may be trucked to agricultural regions, our local processing will produce significant energy and GHG-offsets while reducing the total mass to be transported.




 +   Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 27, 2013 at 6:14 am

Based on Cedric's comments, my impression is that Measure E is another bait & switch ballot just like the HSR bond ballot.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 27, 2013 at 6:20 am

Measure E looked pretty straightforward to me, as did HSR. D was the outlier.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 27, 2013 at 8:46 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by tone deaf
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 27, 2013 at 10:28 am

@musical - So the only election results that are valid are the ones you agree with? Whatever happened to democracy; or is it that you know better than the rest of us so we are supposed to let you make our decisions? It's the same environmental zealots that want the anaerobic digestor as infrastructure to support unlimited growth in Palo Alto that also want walls of dense housing and office buildings. No surprise that you claim Measure D to be an outlier.

Did you notice that a real judge just handed down a decision that found the HSR business plan to be in violation of the Ballot Measure and the required funding plan to exist only in their imaginations. HSR has no environmental benefit. When one deals with real world facts, the carbon footprint of construction requires a 60 year period to be offset by the operational reductions in greenhouse gasses.

An anaerobic digestor with wet and dry streams that has a net positive energy output is simply not possible. The energy required to dry out sewerage will be more than the energy produced from the methane that off gasses. That's a law of physics and there's no amount of hubris that will change physics.

musical and Cedric need to get real and stop spending taxpayer money on dreams that are supported by semantic rhetoric and not physics.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 27, 2013 at 1:19 pm

I was referring to the language in the ballots, not which way to vote.
A response to the comment above mine about bait & switch.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 27, 2013 at 3:24 pm

>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."

Cedric and Peter need to define "environmentally equally protective technology". For example, the argument can be made that plasma arc is far superior, in terms of environmental impact, compared to AD, when human sewage sludge is included in the mix, and spread toxins and industrial footprint in our Baylands is considered.

BTW, can we just agree to lose the word "biosolids"? It is a euphemism that was coined by the EPA, the result of a national contest to call human sewage sludge something else.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by But, but, but....
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 27, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Eleven lbs of mercury, huh? It takes a lot less than that to poison a large population.

So much for Palo Alto being green!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 28, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Evidence of the public's understanding of Measure E can be found in the Weekly's endorsement of the measure
Web Link

which begins:

"... Measure E, an initiative that does nothing more than reserve 10 acres next to the sewage treatment plant currently designated as parkland as a possible site for a state-of-the-art composting facility.

Promoted by environmental activists who see an exciting possibility for the city to turn yard and food waste and the sludge from the sewage-treatment plant into compost and energy, Measure E asks voters to approve a land-use change to permit the acreage to be considered for an anaerobic digester facility if it proves feasible and desirable after further study."

Cedric in his multiple comments on this editorial did not contest the accuracy of this characterization of the intent and meaning of the measure.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2013 at 10:49 pm

"if it proves feasible and desirable after further study."

An unproven technology should not be built. Millions of tax payer dollars should not be blown on some technology that has not been used elsewhere and for which there is not a financial model for. Not a shovel should touch the ground without a full financial accounting.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 29, 2013 at 12:02 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Palo Alto's Regional Waste Water Quality Control Plant (RWQCP) is one of only two sewage treatment plants in the state of California which still incinerates it's sewage. We spend about $800K/year just for the natural gas to fire the incinerator. The vast majority of sewage treatment plants instead use Anaerobic Digestion (AD), and have been doing so for decades. This is a well known, proven, and cost effective technology to get energy out of the sewage rather than just putting energy in.

The only newish part is the opportunity to add food scraps and Fats, Oils, and Grease (FOG) to the mix, to get even more energy out. Studies have shown that digesting food and sewage together releases more energy and has a greater reduction of mass, than digesting each separately. Currently, the vast majority of our food scraps end up in the landfill, where it gets buried in garbage, deprived of oxygen, and anaerobic bacteria naturally breaks it down, producing methane, most of which escapes to the atmosphere as a super potent green house gas. So, food into landfill exacerbates climate change. Better is to capture the food and compost it, even if you have to truck it 53 miles to southern Gilroy, it's still less GHG. Best is to process it and capture the energy locally. Food scraps and FOG have the greatest energy potential per ton than all of our organic waste streams (sewage and yard trimmings being the others).

The current incinerator is aging, reaching the end of it's life and needs to be replaced, so to a comment made above, there will be an energy investment into any future handling of our waste, whether to build a new incinerator (which the Council has indicated we will not do), or to truck it many many miles away, or to build an AD or other facility that produces energy in the treatment process. The question is, do we want to only be putting energy in, or do we want to build something that gets energy out? From both a financial perspective and a green house gas perspective, maximizing our energy return makes the most sense.

I look forward to the bids that the city has received being made available to the public, which is currently set to be preliminarily released in January with, as I understand it, a Council Study Session (meaning a non-voting action) and some community input meetings. Council would take action some time after that, possibly with another study session before hand.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 29, 2013 at 1:30 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Notice that in comments to an article on a composting facility opening in N. San Jose, 13 miles from Palo Alto, Cedric continues to talk about those materials being sent 53 miles, to Gilroy.

Cedric et al: Since one of your core arguments against considering using the SJ facility is that every city should handle its own wastes, would you be willing to have the feasibility study for a PA facility be based on banning any other city from sending wastes to the PA one? If not, explain.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 29, 2013 at 8:43 am

What the proponents never talk about are the costs involved -

1) the cost to build the plant
2) the cost to operate the plant
3) the cost to collect the waste
4) the requirements on each homeowner

and how this shows up in our utility bills.

With the new San Jose plant, what is the cost of taking the waste the 13 miles to the the San Jose plant versus what was in the previous studies of taking waste 53 miles to Gilroy?

And based on Cedric's logic, wouldn't be even more effective to encourage each household to do their own composting through programs, rebates & grants, to cut down on the transportation costs?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 30, 2013 at 10:31 am

>The vast majority of sewage treatment plants instead use Anaerobic Digestion (AD), and have been doing so for decades.

Yes, and then they dump the residue (compost) on agricultural lands or gardens or golf courses. There is growing public and scientific resistance to this practice, due to the accumulation of various toxins that are entrained in the compost. For example, San Francisco used to give the stuff away, but then it banned the distribution, under public protest. Does Palo Alto want to get involved in such a conundrum? Where will our compost go, if it is not allowed to be distributed according to old methods? How much will it cost us to get rid of the stuff to land fills?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 2, 2013 at 2:27 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Doug, please keep in mind that we have not one but three streams of organics to manage: plant trimmings (AKA green waste), food scraps, and sewage.

Currently most of our food waste is truly wasted, going to the landfill and releasing methane to the atmosphere. However the City collects food scraps from restaurants and apartments, and has plans for general residential collection. The current fate of collected food and yard trimmings is that they are trucked 53 miles away to Southern Gilroy.

While Food scraps could instead be trucked just 13 miles to this new facility in San Jose, that still leaves our yard trimmings going 53 miles. Additionally, the San Jose facility does not address our sewage, which, if sent away for composting, would be trucked 114 miles away.

Regarding the handling of each city's food scraps, the San Jose facility is not big enough to handle all the scraps from all the cities in Santa Clara County. Further, not all cities have both the space and the institutional structures to each build their own facility. Thus our region will benefit from the additional handling capacity should Palo Alto provide it. An additional potential win for the city is that accepting food scraps from nearby cities can help offset Palo Alto's total operational costs.

To "Common Sense's" concerns about whether all costs will be considered for each of our organics management options, the answer is yes, of course. That is one of the main reasons for city's Request for Proposals, in addition to getting bids from real companies to provide said services. Received bids include both local handling and remote hauling. City staff has been working diligently to analyze the received bids and determine their 20-year Net Present Value total costs, so they can be accurately compared.

You had written "And based on Cedric's logic, wouldn't [it] be even more effective to encourage each household to do their own composting through programs, rebates & grants, to cut down on the transportation costs?"
Yes, I agree and argued that very point when I served on the Compost Task Force. Such programs currently exist and could theoretically be increased. However, it was pointed out that even if you could get every home to compost, there are things home systems can't handle effectively, like ivy, weed seeds, stumps, etc. Plus we need to handle food and yard from apartments, businesses, city parks, and street trees, and sewage from all of Palo Alto and the RWQCP's partner cities. Thus there is still a role for centralized processing, which brings with it the opportunity for renewable energy generation and Green House Gas offsets.


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