Santa Barbara debates Conversion Technology

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By NICK C. TONKIN · June 20, 2012 · Local News ·

The Santa Barbara City Council began its first day pondering the use of a new technique to reduce landfill waste.

At the first of a two-part workshop yesterday the council heard about the benefits of new composting technology known as Anaerobic Digestion or AD. City environmental services manager Matt Fore said the method, which utilizes a special facility to extract biogases from organic waste, could be a much more cost efficient way of reducing garbage going through the Tajiguas landfill.

Fore said the need to divert waste from the landfill is critical. While the canyon it occupies has plenty of physical space left, the space that the public can use to throw garbage is much smaller and expected to run out by 2023.

“We need to divert waste from Tajiguas now,” Fore said.

To do that, the city is considering installing a composting program, and a sorting facility known as a Materials Recovery Factory(MRF). It would separate recyclables that accidentally make it into the trash and organic material from the rest of the garbage.

The recycling would go to the normal plants, the organic material would be composted and sold off. The question for the council would be whether to add a $33 million AD plant to do the composting.

AD works by isolating the organic material in an airtight room with a little water and a small bacteria culture for 28 days. During that time, the bacteria multiply, consuming part of the waste and produce methane.

“It’s contained on one piece of property, one campus from start to finish,” Fore said.

Cities around California like San Jose, which already runs a composting program, are beginning to construct their own AD plants. After a site visit to San Jose, Fore said putting in a similar facility at Tajiguas would be possible.

Though it comes with a hefty price tag, Goleta, Buellton, Solvang and the County of Santa Barbara would split the costs. And unlike normal composting, AD produces its own electricity, enough the power the plant and have enough left over to sell back to the grid.

Mark Schleich, deputy director of Resource Recovery and Waste Management for the county, said there are also other potential revenue sources that come with an AD plant. The state offers renewable energy credits and an AD plant would increase property values.

“Here’s an opportunity to take waste, invest in it, create energy, create new jobs, and create a new property tax base,” Schleich said.

An AD plant also doesn’t have the same impacts on air or water quality that a regular composting problem would have.

Mustang Renewable Power Ventures has been selected as the preferred vendor for any facilities going in. Its chief executive, John Dewey, told the council standard composting tends to have more hidden costs than AD such as transporting fees, and site capacity issues as the process for normal composting takes much longer.

“Personally, we feel that the incremental cost of AD is not significant when you consider all of the hidden costs of aerobic composting,” Dewey said.

But city staff aren’t pushing for an AD plant just yet. The finances have yet to be compared by the city, so the key question of whether the city gets good value for the money remains open. Finance Director Bob Samario said the city would have an analysis at its Thursday meeting.

Fore also noted while many cities are building AD plants, there are no fully operational ones within the United States, giving staff very few reference points. Holding off on building a plant would allow time for the technology to mature and avoid financial premiums that come with being the first in the nation.

Though not due to take action yet, the council seemed receptive to the technology, but had clear concerns about the money involved. Mayor Helene Schneider felt it would be important for the council to know why San Jose, which already has a composting program, decided to go with AD.

“It seems like what they’re doing now is working, so what is the value added for them?” Schneider said.

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