When Palo Alto voters went to the polls in 2011 to "undedicate" 10 acres of parkland in the Baylands, they had a clear goal: to enable the city to manage its own organic waste.
The campaign leading up to the Measure E vote became a clash between two environmentalist factions, with proponents arguing that constructing a local plant would be the most sustainable course of action and opponents countering that the Palo Alto Baylands would be a poor location for a new industrial waste operation and that a more regional solution should be pursued.
The former resoundingly won the political battle in 2011, when 65 percent of the voters supported reserving the 10-acre site at Byxbee Park, next to the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, for the facility that would convert waste into energy.
But six years after the vote, it increasingly looks like the latter faction is winning the war. City officials are scaling down their plans, exploring technologies that would have a smaller footprint and increasingly looking to other communities for solutions to local waste problems.
In July 2016, Palo Alto began to ship its curbside compostables — food scraps and yard trimmings — to the new Zero Waste Energy Development Facility in north San Jose, where a dry anaerobic digestion facility turns them into energy.
When it comes to sewage waste, the City Council earlier this year approved a haul-out facility that will allow Palo Alto to dry its sewage and truck it elsewhere for processing — a far cry from the plant that Measure E envisioned.
If the shift from local to regional waste disposal seems somewhat counter to Measure E — which was launched in preparation for the 2012 closure of the city's landfill at Byxbee Park — it is. The measure stated: "Ceasing local composting will cause significant environmental impacts, as Palo Alto will have to haul yard trimmings and food waste to locations outside the City for disposal or composting, thereby generating greenhouse gases and depriving Palo Altans of both yard trimming drop-off and local compost."
The main driver for a new approach is economics. The cost estimates for the type of wet anaerobic digester that many Measure E proponents had favored in 2011 have skyrocketed, going from about $57 million at the time of the vote to about $75 million, according to a March report from the Public Works Department.
And as prices have gone up, ambitions have gone down. Staff had previously explored building anaerobic digesters with thermal hydrolysis (a process that allows more energy extraction). A June report on the city's infrastructure projects notes, however, that these facilities were "put on hold" because of the potential expense. Now, the city is taking a closer look at cheaper technologies.
One is gasification, a process that uses high temperatures and controlled amounts of oxygen to convert organic waste into gas. Last month, Silicon Valley Clean Water, a wastewater-management agency, unveiled a gasification facility of this sort at its facility in Redwood Shores as part of a 10-year contract with the Italian firm BioForceTech.
Another option is pyrolysis, a process that exposes organic waste to high temperatures without oxygen and which, in addition to energy, produces a product called biochar.
"Anaerobic digesters were put on hold due to the high cost of anaerobic digesters with thermal hydrolysis. Staff will re-evaluate long-term solids treatment options after completion of the sludge dewatering and truck load-out facility, with key alternatives to include emerging technologies such as pyrolysis and gasification. Evaluation will also include other anaerobic digestion options," the June report stated.
Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, said that while the city hasn't exactly pivoted away from anaerobic digestion, the new curbside composting pickup and rising cost estimates have changed the conversation. The sentiment today, Bobel said, is that what the city does with its waste is more important than where it does it.
"We're trucking our yard trimmings and our food scraps to dry anaerobic digesters in north San Jose, so we take care of two of the three products very close to home in exactly the fashion Measure E hopes," Bobel said.
He acknowledged that this falls short of the Measure E goal of processing organic waste in a city-run plant but noted that the San Jose facility is only 15 miles away. City staff is now of the belief that the greenhouse-gases produced by trucking the materials are "really minor."
Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a Measure E proponent who served on a blue-ribbon committee that worked with staff on long-term solutions for organic waste, shares that view, though he also said he is a bit disappointed by the city's piece-meal approach to planning for a waste-to-energy facility and with how long it is taking the city to make progress.
De la Beujardiere said the committee's biggest goals was to get food waste out of the landfill. In that sense, the curbside-compostables program and the city's use of the north San Jose plant have been a success.
"Changing what we're doing is the biggest single benefit," de La Beaujardiere said.
Peter Drekmeier, former mayor and one of the leaders of the Measure E campaign, said the city probably would've been in a "better place" had it been able to move faster. Given the hot economy and high construction prices, staff's decision to hold off on the new plant is understandable, Drekmeier said.
"All the construction companies have a full plate and are able to charge top dollar," Drekmeier said.
But despite his disappointment, Drekmeier noted that the city has achieved great progress since the measure. Palo Alto no longer trucks food waste to a landfill in Gilroy and city leaders are still considering a local solution, even if it's not the one Measure E proponents had initially favored.
"There's still a chance we'll find a better technology that's cheaper, or the economy will change," Drekmeier said.
If there is one achievement that both environmentalist camps have embraced since 2011, it's the City Council's decision to retire the city's sewage-sludge-burning incinerators, a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions, and replace them with a "haul-out facility" at the water-treatment plant.
Drekmeier called the recommissioning of the incinerators a "huge benefit to the community." Emily Renzel, a former vice mayor, leading conservationist and vehement opponent of Measure E, concurred and said she looks forward to the day the incinerators are retired. She still hopes, though, that the city will be able to pursue a long-term local solution for waste without infringing on Byxbee Park.
For her, the length of time that it's taking the city to solve its waste problems could portend the ultimate victory. The 2011 measure states that the council may rededicate any portion of the 10-acre site not used for waste treatment back to parkland 10 years after the measure's passage. With no plans for a new plant in sight, time appears now on her side.
The new dewatering and truck haul-out facility is scheduled to be completed in fall of 2019, and Bobel said staff will wait until that facility is up and running before reaching any decisions on what type of plant to construct. This makes it virtually impossible for the city to have an advanced treatment plant built on the Measure E site by November 2021, the Measure E deadline.
"I'm hopeful we will get that land rededicated, since it was essentially undedicated for the specific purpose of this conversion technology," Renzel told the Weekly.
Renzel isn't exactly celebrating the city's change of course since 2011, noting that it still remains to be seen exactly what type of technology the council adopts. But she fully supports the staff's cautious approach to choosing the right waste-to-energy technology.
"Everything I've seen so far suggests they're going on a reasonable course of action," Renzel said.
Watch "Behind the Headlines" for a discussion on this topic with City Hall reporter Gennady Sheyner.