Palo Alto, arguably one of the most progressive cities in the United States, still uses a dirty incinerator to destroy its sewage sludge. On Tuesday, Palo Alto voters have the opportunity to vote for a ballot initiative that will clear the road for the construction of a new, cleaner waste management system, an anaerobic digester, to turn the sludge and compost into biogas. It should be that simple. Unfortunately, misinformation and skewed facts have cast doubt on the benefits of this initiative. Let’s clear things up.
Forty-five years ago, the City of Palo Alto decided that when a landfill near the Bay was decommissioned, the land it occupied would be turned into a park. That time has come and gone, and still only 30 acres of the total 126 are open to the public. The park still resembles an old landfill, void of vegetation. Measure E simply proposes to rededicate 10 acres of the park bordering a sewage treatment plant for the express purpose of constructing an anaerobic digester. Impartial analysis by city attorney Molly S. Stump has confirmed that the wording of Measure E only permits the land to be used for that purpose. This means that no loopholes exist in the measure that could allow the land to be developed in another way.
An anaerobic digester on the site would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20,000 tons per year compared to current practices, the equivalent of planting 1.5 million trees, while saving the city $1 million each year in waste management costs. At the same time, the biogas the digester produces can generate 1.4 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1,200 to 1,400 homes. Some people equate biogas and natural gas, since both are primarily composed of methane, and thus attribute natural gas’s negative qualities to biogas. But biogas is a natural part of the Earth’s carbon cycle, resulting in no net emissions. Incinerating this potential renewable energy resource is not only wasteful, but also irresponsible. We have to dispose of our organic waste somehow, so why not extract some useful energy in the process?
Some opponents view anaerobic digesters as smelly, noisy industrial facilities that mar an otherwise natural landscape. There are two problems with this assertion. First, the digester would be constructed next to a sewage treatment plant, so industrial activity already exists in the area. Second, a consultant hired by Palo Alto studied a fully enclosed digester that uses a vacuum, sucking in air and filtering it before it is released to prevent the leaking of bad odors. If a digester emits odors, that means it was incorrectly constructed, as lost biogas is lost profit and energy. In Europe, digesters are unobtrusive enough to be located in residential neighborhoods.
Palo Alto made a promise to its citizens to transform this landfill into beautiful parkland with space for residents to enjoy. Since that decision was made, a lot has changed, including the rise of green energy and a focus on environmental justice. Today, voters have a choice to eliminate pollution caused by an incinerator and efficiently dispose of their organic waste, thereby ensuring clean skies and clean energy at the expense of 8% of a former landfill. The Democratic Party, Republican Party, Green Party, Palo Alto Weekly, League of Women’s Voters, and Students for a Sustainable Stanford all support Measure E. You should too.
Will Troppe is a sophomore and co-leader of the Energy subgroup of Students for a Sustainable Stanford. He is planning on majoring in Atmosphere / Energy.
Elena Stamatakos is a sophomore majoring in Earth Systems and is an Outreach Coordinator for Students for Sustainable Stanford.