Palo Alto, Calif., to Buy 'Green' Power Created by Gas of Decomposing Garbage

Pushing to buy at least 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, Palo Alto has turned to a new supply: rotting garbage in Watsonville.

Palo Alto, Calif. — Pushing to buy at least 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, Palo Alto has turned to a new supply: rotting garbage in Watsonville.

The city utilities department has inked a deal to buy "green" electricity created by the methane gas that seeps out of the buried, decomposing garbage in the Santa Cruz County landfill.

"I think it reflects what our community wants, what our council has directed us to do," said Girish Balachandran, an assistant manager of the utilities department.

Palo Alto will buy enough of the landfill electricity to power about 1,500 homes. That will slightly reduce the air pollution from traditional power plants and lessen dependence on non-renewable resources such as oil and natural gas, according to city officials.

Flammable methane percolates up through the ground in landfills across the country. In the first season of concerts at Shoreline Amphitheater, built in 1986 on an old landfill in Mountain View, gas often filtered through the lawn, smelling nasty and occasionally catching fire before the problem was fixed.


In many landfills, a network of underground pipes collects the methane to be burned off or used as fuel.

In the Watsonville agreement, burning methane will generate steam to spin generators in a power plant to be built by Massachusetts-based Ameresco, Inc.

Ameresco has signed contracts to sell the electricity wholesale to the utility departments in Palo Alto and the East Bay city of Alameda. Both departments are in the business of reselling electricity to their residential and business customers.

When the electricity starts flowing in late 2005, it won't pass directly from Watsonville to Palo Alto.

"You can't physically direct power" straight from the landfill, Balachandran said.

Instead, the green electricity purchased by the city will be dumped into the nation's electrical grid, and Palo Alto will pull an equal amount of electricity out of the grid.

The city's environmental goal is to reach the 20-percent-renewable level by 2015. An interim goal of 10 percent by 2008 probably will be met before the deadline, Balachandran said.

Palo Alto buys most of its green electricity from wind farms across the West. It gets a small amount from a solar energy project near the Alameda County fairgrounds in Pleasanton.

In general, green electricity cost more than power generated by coal, oil, natural gas or uranium, Balachandran said.

But the city will pay 5.1 cents per kilowatt hour for the Watsonville methane electricity, about what it pays for traditional electricity on the open market.

"It's a good price," Balachandran said, made possible by the city's willingness to sign a 20-year contract.

To engage residents in the "renewables" cause, the city has a separate program called Palo Alto Green. Participants agree to pay slightly higher electric bills, and in return the city agrees to buy additional green electricity.

The program has succeeded in signing up about 10 percent of city households. But since 85 percent of the city's electricity is consumed by businesses, especially big corporations like Roche Pharmaceuticals and Hewlett-Packard, the overall effect is limited.

Still, the city says each volunteer green household has the same effect on clean air as adding 1.25 acres of forest or not driving an automobile 11,762 miles per year.

The Watsonville plant will have the same effect on air quality as taking 27,000 cars off the road, according to Ameresco officials.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News