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Poo-Powered Electric Plant Location Heads to Palo Alto Voters

Activists successfully gather enough John Hancocks to let voters decide on Byxbee Park site for compost plant.

UPDATE: Article has been edited for clarity throughout.

Activists fighting to replace the old sewage sludge incinerator next to Byxbee Park announced Monday that they’ve received enough signatures to let voters decide this fall whether to set aside land at that location for a compost facility that could, depending on the final design choice, convert organic waste into electricity.

Palo Alto’s landfill is slated to shut down next year, and plans are to truck residents’ yard and food waste 53 miles to Gilroy while continuing to incinerate sewage sludge.

Eco-activist Carolyn Curtis said she believes that plan should be scrapped and replaced with one that acknowledges what she and 5,500 signatories want the City Council to agree on: When it comes to alternative energy, fecal matters.

“Anything organic is a resource,” she said, “and we could be using it instead of paying to have it dealt with somewhere else.”

In order to use the city’s organic waste, which in addition to sewage sludge would include yard waste from the green bins and food scraps from restaurants, the city would have to capable of converting that matter into compost and methane, which could be used to generate electricity.

The problem for advocates of the plan is that the site of the existing incinerator is at the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant, and only voters can decide whether to un-designate 10 acres (of the existing 126-acre landfill) required for the plant. This fall, residents will have the chance to do just that, provided the signatures are accepted by the Registrar of Voters in San Jose.

Curtis, who organized the signature drive for Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiative (PAGECI), said an overwhelmingly positive response to the campaign's signature-drive suggests residents are ready for the change.

“It was really inspiring to talk to people about this issue, because they really care about it,” she said. “They’re really conscientious and informed.”

Curtis organized a group of 60 volunteers who turned in petitions and said that, on average, only 2 percent of people who chose not to sign did so because they disagreed with the petition.

“I had 12 out of 880 say, ‘I don’t believe in this,’ and that was typical of the whole effort,” Curtis said. “We had more people signing up at the farmers market to volunteer than refusing to sign the petition.”

Former Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier, who gathered the third-most signatures after Walt Hays and Carolyn Curtis herself, said that choosing to continue burning sewage sludge would leave him and other environmentalists crying foul.  

“People want to be able to handle our waste locally,” he said. “They love the idea of producing green energy from our waste and meeting the goals of our climate protection plan.“

Besides, he said, the existing incinerator is only one of two left in California, and would have to be rebuilt at a cost of tens of millions of dollars if it were to continue to be used.

In the meantime, the Feasibility Study Group is gearing up for a presentation Monday of a feasibility study of the proposed anaerobic digestion facility.

That study is already falling under criticism by members of PAGECI, including Drekmeier, who in a letter to the author of the study (see PDF in sidebar), expressed concerns that the conclusions don't account for many of the benefits of a wet anaerobic digestion facility, which could handle both biosolids and food waste.

The feasiblity study instead only looked at a dry anaerobic digestor, which would be unable to receive waste from the water treatment plant.

Members of PAGECI will be at King Plaza at  Tuesday, from 10:30- 11:30 a.m., to discuss the success of their signature-gathering effort and the community benefits of anaerobic digestion.

Carolyn Curtis March 18, 2011 at 08:45 PM
The headline is very misleading: 1 Nothing "heads to the voters" until the Registrar of Voters certifies that enough signatures qualify; after that come several more steps involving the city council and its attorney. 2 What might be heading to the voters November 8 is not an "electric plant location" but a proposal to undedicate 10 acres next to the wastewater treatment plant for "for the exclusive purpose of building a facility (“Facility” herein) 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." Full text of initiative at www.pagreenenergy.org/initative. 3 Whether there's an "electric plant" at the site is up to the city council. 4 One proposal is a combination of sewage digestate (which is Not "poo") that's currently being incinerated at the wastewater treatment plant, combined with food waste and/or yard waste; the configuration is up to the city council.

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