Napa residents could soon see their thrown-out scraps of food and soiled napkins transformed into fuel used to power Napa Recycling & Waste garbage trucks.
A recently awarded $3 million state energy grant could offer Napa the capital it needs to build its very own anaerobic digester. The equipment would harness the methane produced from decomposing food scraps and covert it into fuel for the city’s garbage trucks. Such efforts would make Napa a national leader
in environmental technology, city officials say.
“It’s like taking cars off the road, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kevin Miller, the city’s recycling manager. “When we talk about sustainability, this is the dream. We would be one of the first facilities in North America, and the first commercial facility in California, to do this. It is innovative technology that will put us on the cutting edge, in a state that’s already leading the nation on environmental efforts.”
The city and its contractor, Napa Recycling and Waste Services, have been running a small-scale, pilot food composting program for the past year. About 60 local businesses and 2,300 residents have spent the past 12 months collecting things like egg shells, orange peels and cardboard pizza boxes and placing them into their brown yard waste dumpsters. The scraps have been picked up with the rest of their yard waste and allowed to decompose naturally in uncovered rows at the south Napa compost facility site.
But with the new grant money, the city would expand the food composting program to include the entire city and portions of the unincorporated county. Napa would then build a facility that would produce enough methane to power Napa Recycling’s fleet of 35 garbage trucks.
The project isn’t a done deal yet. The $3 million California Energy Commission grant will cover only a portion of the project’s estimated $12.7 million cost. The rest of the money will likely come from bond financing, which must be approved by the Napa City Council.
“We had an existing bond from 2004 that we just retired,” said Miller. “So we can be relatively debt-neutral by replacing one debt for another. But all of this has to go to the council and receive their blessing.”
If the council approves the project, Napa can expect greater recycling participation, reduced fuel costs and lowered greenhouse gas emission. It can also expect to become a blueprint for other cities to follow, officials said.
While many towns throughout the state are just beginning to explore food recycling programs, Napa’s pilot program could make it a shoe-in to receive the grant money it needs to jump-start a full-fledged program, officials said.
The current Napa Recycling facility sits on a 19-acre site in south Napa. The proposed anaerobic digestion technology would occupy a mere 30,000 square feet of land — less than an acre — meaning it would be extremely compact and efficient, said Miler.
Napa’s proposed anaerobic facility would be able to accept about 25,000 tons of food waste per year, which would produce the equivalent of 328,000 gallons of fuel annually.
“The average (garbage) truck uses about 36 gallons of diesel a day, based on a five-day work week,” said Miller. “At $3 per gallon, the annual fuel cost for Napa is over $900,000; at $4 per gallon, the annual fuel cost would be just over $1.3 million.”
While the upfront costs are rather high for the digester, Miller said that the city could spend about $400,000 less per year on fuel for the garbage trucks. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, Miller said the change would be the equivalent of removing 1,200 passenger cars from Napa roads each year.
Many local officials have expressed their excitement over the proposed opportunity, including Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. In a letter supporting the city’s initial grant application, Thompson said the facility best embodied the mission of the California Energy Commission.
“... this project will be the first commercial scale project of its kind, reinforcing California’s position as the nation’s leader in alternative energy development,” he wrote.
And while city officials won’t weigh in on the project until September, excitement is already brewing. During a recent hearing to discuss the newly passed plastic bag ban, Miller informed the council the city had received the grant.
“We look forward to hearing more about this project when the time comes,” said Mayor Jill Techel.
Napa was one of just four applicants that received a portion of the energy commission’s grant funding for biomethane projects in towns with a population of less than 100,000. If approved, the city will oversee the project, while Napa Recycling will manage construction.
Miller pointed out that without the grant, the city wouldn’t be able to move forward on the project. “That’s what’s grants are supposed to do — help you introduce technology that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.”
Because the effect of such a project on rates is unknown, the city has postponed future rate-setting. Miller said he hopes to be able to present a clearer picture to the council and public at the Sept. 16 City Council meeting.
For more information, visit naparecycling.com or cityofnapa.com.