News

Years after divisive vote, Palo Alto proposes sharp shift on composting

City prepares to abandon private-sector offers for waste-to-energy plant, pursue own methods

Palo Alto's contentious plan to build a Baylands facility for turning food, yard and other waste into energy is about to take a radical turn as the city prepares to toss aside the proposals it has received from the private sector and assume a more central role in building and managing its composting operation.

The topic of waste management has been a hot one within Palo Alto's environmental community since 2011, when the city was preparing to close its landfill in Byxbee Park and residents offered differing visions about the future of local composting and food waste. Proponents of keeping waste management local scored a big victory that November, when voters approved Measure E and "undedicated" a 10-acre portion of the closed landfill that was to be added to Byxbee Park for the anaerobic digester. Opponents, who included several leading conservationists, argued that Byxbee was the wrong place for a waste operation.

Now, three years after that polarizing debate, the trash talking has abated and both sides are offering their tentative blessings to the city's new idea. The latest proposal, which the City Council will consider on April 29, includes rejecting all three of the offers Palo Alto received from the private sector for treating the three waste streams -- food scraps, yard trimmings and sewage sludge.

Instead, it would pursue a path that would start with treating sewage at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant on Embarcadero Road, add food scraps about a year later and then finally proceed to yard trimmings.

The approach differs drastically from what officials had in mind just a year ago, when the city was looking to the private sector to build a plant that would treat all three types of organic waste together. Now, Public Works officials are recommending, as the first phase, modifications to the water-control plant that would allow the city to finally retire its antiquated sludge-burning incinerators -- a goal shared by both camps of environmentalists.

Concurrently, staff would proceed with a plan to build a wet anaerobic-digestion plant that would ultimately treat the sewage waste and produce energy. Processing food waste would follow about a year later.

Under the new plan, Palo Alto would build a preprocessing facility to remove contaminants from food scraps. Once that is done, food scraps would join sewage sludge in the new anaerobic digester.

The final phase of the city's plan would address yard trimmings, though it's far from clear what that solution will look like. Whereas before officials planned to process the trimmings at the Baylands waste-to-energy plant, now they are preparing to consider other options, including new technologies. The report cites as an example the San Jose/Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility, which recently approved a one-year project to gasify wood waste and biosolids. Palo Alto officials plan to follow these emerging technologies to evaluate "whether a local facility on the 3.8-acre relatively flat portion of the Measure E site is a sustainable option," the report states.

For the near term, city staff recommends no change to how it currently handles yard trimmings for composting, which is to send them to Gilroy.

The pivot from the private sector to a city-run operation represents a dramatic strategic shift. In February, council members heard a presentation about proposals the city received from three different companies: Harvest Power, We Generation and Synagro. Synagro offered to export all three types of waste, and the other two companies both offered to build anaerobic-digestion plants. We Generation proposed using thermal hydrolysis, in which cell walls are broken down in organic waste to release more energy.

The new report from Public Works offers several reasons for rejecting the proposals. The strongest one is costs. Staff projects that the proposals by Synagro, Harvest Power and We Generation would cost about $98.9 million, $97.1 million, and $107 million over 20 years, respectively. The city-owned process recommended in the new plan would cost about $76.8 million (continuing with current processes, in which yard waste is exported and food waste goes to San Jose, is estimated to cost about $98 million).

The city's views about the risks of the venture have also evolved. When the city issued its request for proposals in 2013, officials assumed the offers would include various novel technologies. Now, based on the private-sector responses, Public Works staff is confident that wet anaerobic digestion is the way to go (in the past, the city had considered a different process called "dry anaerobic digestion") and that the risk of adopting this well-used technology is relatively low.

"The expectation was that there would be synergy associated with processing the three waste streams together and that would warrant the associated risk," the report states. "However, the technologies proposed (by the companies) were generally considered conventional with a limited amount of risk."

Though the plan has yet to officially launch, it has already achieved one thing: bringing the competing environmentalist camps closer together. In February, members from both sides offered their compliments to staff on the new approach. For one thing, everyone shares the goal of retiring incinerators. Furthermore, the new approach means that the city won't have to build an industrial operation at the Measure E site -- at least not any time soon. Walt Hays, who helped lead the campaign to undedicate the parkland, called that one of the chief benefits of the latest proposal.

"One of the exciting things about this is that after all the controversy of Measure E, it looks like we can have most of what we want without having to use the 10 acres, which would be fine for everybody. So a lot of the antagonism that took place during that (campaign) would be eliminated," Hays said.

Conservationist Emily Renzel, who opposed the new Baylands plant, said staff has done "an amazing job synthesizing some very, very complex issues" and that "for once in 14 years, I agree with Walt Hays."

At the February meeting, the council requested more information, including a more detailed timeline and a range of options for the city's ownership of the new facilities. According to the new report, the city projects that the incinerators could be retired and demolished by 2020 and that the new anaerobic digester would be built by 2022.

Related article:

Proponents of Baylands compost plant not sold on new city proposal

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2014 at 9:08 am

Seems like the City is about to start up Mitchell Park II.

Why in the world would anyone believe that they know what they are doing. These are unaccountable employees than can not be fired, or sued, for incompetence.

Mitchell Park should be enough to say NO!!! to any more City-run projects.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 24, 2014 at 10:56 am

> Palo Alto would build a preprocessing facility to remove contaminants from food scraps.

And just how would they do that?

People do not seem to be willing or able to sort their garbage. Hell, in an unnamed public facility I was recently at they could not be bothers to put garbage in the garbage and recyclables in the recycle. Someone has to do this or what point is there in trying to recycle if the sorting costs are going to be high. Let's just ship it to China.

There are so many people these days and so much different stuff coming together that I'd just like to know how they plan to sort it out, clean it up, and what the statistics are on the quality of that?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 24, 2014 at 11:34 am

not sure if I should laugh or cry...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 24, 2014 at 11:37 am

I'm sure this will go as well as Mitchell Park. Remind me again how many years late that is!

How much is this garbage going to cost us? How high will our utility bills soar?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ellen
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 24, 2014 at 2:59 pm

While I too wonder when Mitchell Park Library will open (but it looks great from the outside, doesn't it?), I am tired of reading carping comments about how the city does nothing right. What about the other libraries - College Terrace, Children's, Downtown, each distinctive and delightful - and now "Rinconada" seems to be coming along well. Plus the Art Center and the quiet but steady refurbishment of parks.

If you don't like what's happening, be sure you vote in the City Council election in November - or even consider running.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Yes. Consider running.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Yes, consider running. Some Council members are at the end of their terms and so there will be vacant seats. Put your infallible vision to use in service to your community. It's easy to be a critic. Hard to be a leader.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by guest
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 25, 2014 at 10:59 am

"While I too wonder when Mitchell Park Library will open (but it looks great from the outside, doesn't it?) ..."

What is so great about it? A hideous crazy colored monster twice as tall and large as the old nice library and community center. For that they destroyed the old pine trees out in the parking.
This council must be accountable for the ugliness they are bringing into this city.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 25, 2014 at 12:33 pm

>The report cites as an example the San Jose/Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility, which recently approved a one-year project to gasify wood waste and biosolids.

I hope they are talking about thermal breakdown to break molecular bonds (e.g. plasma arc gasification). This is a rational approach, long blocked by the environmental ideologues, including our own (PA Green Energy).

Measure E (un-dedicating 10 acres of our parkland) was sold as necessary to build a dry anaerobic digestion (AD) industrial plant to handle vegetation trimmings and de-wetted "biosolids" (which is just a euphemism for human sewage sludge). Now, once the campaign was successful, it became wet AD, apparently because the proponents could toss in another flavor of the day, food scraps (which we will be forced to store in a separate waste container). So it was a bait and switch...happens all the time in politics.

Leaving the financial costs (which are substantial)aside, there remains the issue of what to do with the human sewage sludge residues, which contain most of the toxins they arrived with at the sewage plant? Hint, hint: Plasma arc gasification, same as for the plant trimmings...throw in some used tires to increase the heat content of the incoming 'fuel' stream (to compensate for wet feedstock)...then use the resulting syngas for electricity generation...with all the toxics destroyed in the process.

I oppose the CPA owning/running this project (way too high of labor costs and bureaucracy), but I do applaud the staff for edging closer to a rational approach.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by JO
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 25, 2014 at 2:03 pm

I've learned to not believe anything the city staff says.If they are reccommending this, I am against it.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Julius M.
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 25, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Whatever it is, I'm against it!

Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 25, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Palo Alto cannot possibly provide any service themselves at a reasonable cost because of its pay scale for employees. But the problem with outsourcing is the incompetence of the employees they already have...they don't even seem to be able to supervise contractors. The answer: just keep blackmailing Stanford for more undeserved money, and hope blind PA accidentally runs into honest and competent contractors.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 25, 2014 at 6:38 pm

>If they are reccommending this, I am against it.

City staff has many issues, but sometimes they get on the right track. I think they are edging towards the truth on this one. After all, they are standing up to the PA Green Energy ideologues, and suggesting an alternative approach.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2014 at 8:31 pm

@ Craig

Has anyone built a plasma arc on the scale you're proposing? They're pretty common for small scale medical waste processing. You've been a long-time advocate of the technology. Curious if anyone uses it the way you would like. Couple references would be helpful. Thanks!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 26, 2014 at 9:26 am

>Has anyone built a plasma arc on the scale you're proposing? They're pretty common for small scale medical waste processing. You've been a long-time advocate of the technology. Curious if anyone uses it the way you would like. Couple references would be helpful. Thanks!

Probably best to start with this Wikipedia review...lots of commercial waste-to-energy stuff happening at this point. There have also been some large scale plants in Japan.

Web Link

Given that the environmental extremists have fought plasma arc for so long, I think it is impressive that it is finally breaking through. I sounds like the PA staff is starting to take it seriously, too.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Norman
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 26, 2014 at 9:47 am

The affluence of this area leads to arrogance (everyone is so darn intelligent). Thus, Palo Alto officals and the rest believe that everyone else is pretty stupid and only they can make things work, history of failures notwithstanding. The good news is that the area's affluence can cover up for the waste that comes about during amateur hour. Oh, well , that's who we are.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 26, 2014 at 1:09 pm

The resistance to sewage sludge 'biosolids' compost is growing:

Web Link

Certified organic farmers are not allowed to use the stuff.

Palo Alto should not put itself into a position to have to get rid of this stuff...might be very expensive. Anaerobic digestion, if it leaves us with this stuff to dispose of, should be rejected.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by My Take
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 26, 2014 at 8:56 pm

As a community, we already generate a great deal of 'stuff' that must somehow be dealt with. I agree with above comments about Mitchell Park being not only not attractive, but also, we can't deny that we have no library there yet, nor anything we can use. However, shipping our giant amounts of waste over the long term will be very costly, and create a lot of traffic and greenhouse gas. We do need to find a way to deal with the waste that is local and green. All we can do is try and become educated and influence the decision makers we have elected. The bright spot is, we don't have to be too concerned with this being hideous, a sure outcome with these folks in charge, as waste treatment plants are not supposed to be pretty, only effective.


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