Palo Alto Green Energy Initiative pushes for new compost facility

Oct. 12, 2010, 3:04 a.m.

The Palo Alto Green Energy Initiative (PAGEI) kicked off its petition drive in front of City Hall on Sept. 25, calling for an initiative on the November 2011 ballot for the rededication of 10 acres of Byxbee Park for a composting operation. The initiative supports the construction of a composting operation, or anaerobic digestion facility, on 10 of the 127 acres scheduled to be turned into parkland when the Byxbee Park landfill closes in 2012–but it is facing some community opposition.

Palo Alto Green Energy Initiative pushes for new compost facility
This map shows the site boundary of the proposed anaerobic digestion facility. (Courtesy of Peter Drekmeier)

The anaerobic digestion facility would convert more than 60,000 tons of organic waste per year into green energy and compost, providing enough energy to power 1,400 homes and reducing city greenhouse-gas emissions by 20,000 tons per year, according to PAGEI. The facility, which would be next to the existing wastewater treatment plant, could also save the city $1 million each year.

“There’s been a kind of chicken-or-egg situation,” said former Palo Alto mayor and PAGEI member Peter Drekmeier of the petition, stressing the importance of thinking ahead to next year’s election even though results of a feasibility study commissioned by the City Council last spring will not be published in full until September 2011.

The proposed facility would use dry anaerobic digestion, “a fermentation process that breaks down the material in the absence of oxygen and produces methane which is harvested for energy,” according to Hilary Gans, a proponent of the facility and contract manager for South Bayside Waste Management Authority.

“That energy can be combusted to generate electricity or it can be piped over to the wastewater treatment plant to be used as heating in their process,” Gans said. “Or, theoretically, it can be compressed into liquefied natural gas to run vehicles.”

Overall, said Gans, “it is an energy-positive operation. We also calculate that it’s a revenue-positive facility.”

The facility is expected to cost between $14 and $20 million. Potential sources of funding include city programs, venture capital, government grants and the city’s Refuse Fund and Utilities Fund, including the Calaveras Fund, which totals between $25 and $30 million, according to Drekmeier.

“This is one of the most significant things we can do as a community,” Drekmeier said of the facility. Forty years ago when the landfill was originally labeled to be turned into parkland, “no one knew about global warming,” he said. “If Proposition 23 is defeated on Nov. 2, there will be a lot more focus on how to reduce greenhouse gases.”

“We feel it’s tremendously popular,” Drekmeier added of the initiative, reflecting on the pride Palo Alto residents have of their environmental ethic.

“There is a need for dozens of these facilities to be built,” Gans said. “Right now there are none.”

“Palo Alto has a history of being responsible for its own services, with its own utilities department, wastewater treatment plant, and landfill,” Gans added. “This facility is an extension of that self-reliant philosophy.”

Not so, says conservationist and former councilmember Emily Renzel.

“It’s being misrepresented to people,” said Renzel of the petition. “This is a park undedication ordinance, pure and simple. They have a concept of a project but there is no official project.”

Renzel views the proposed facility as “a real slap in the face to many, many councils who ratified over and over again that this would be a park,” and doubts its money-making prospects.

“Dream on,” said Renzel to the idea that the facility will not cause disruptive noise or odor, calling the computer-generated image of the facility “a pie-in-the-sky” vision.

Dry anaerobic digestion takes place indoors, but Renzel says trucks coming and going from the site would cause disruptions. Drekmeier hopes the facility would have a green roof, though opponents like Renzel question how expensive a green roof would be.

Proponents of the facility view it as a compromise. “This is not an either-or decision,” Gans said, stressing that the facility will use only about 10 of Byxbee Park’s 127 acres.

“If we don’t set aside land for this purpose, we’ll have lost this opportunity forever,” Gans said.

Although a private company, Peninsula Sanitary Services, Inc., handles University waste, sustainability programs on campus see the initiative in Palo Alto as a step in the right direction.

“It represents a really positive step for Palo Alto in the long term and for Stanford as well,” said Theo Gibbs ’11, ASSU executive chair of sustainability. “I think it’s more a matter of looking at short-term definitions of environmentalism and ‘green’ versus long-term sustainability.”

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