Council OKs Scholl Biogas Facility

First published in the Dec. 4 print issue of the Glendale News Press.

To cap off a six-hour meeting, five of which were spent on the topic, the City Council voted narrowly this week to move forward with the biogas power generation facility proposed at the Scholl Canyon Landfill.
Mayor Paula Devine, along with councilmen Vrej Agajanian and Ara Najarian, voted Tuesday to accept the environmental impact report for the project and grant its conditional use permit. Councilmen Dan Brotman and Ardy Kassakhian opposed. The discussion and vote were borne from an appeal by the city against the permit’s denial by the Planning Commission.
In contrast to the ruling by the Planning Commission and the claims by the project’s opponents, the three council members contended that the facility would align with the city’s general plan, would not be detrimental to public health and the environment, and would not adversely affect nearby properties. City planners said the plant can generate up to 12 megawatts of power per year using methane from the landfill’s gas emissions and operate for decades, powering around 11,000 homes.
“No one is saying this is a perfect project. It has issues, but we have to look at what we get,” Devine said at the meeting. “Scholl is a community facility. This project would complete the vision of capturing this [landfill gas] and putting it to beneficial use. That’s the definition of sustainability, as far as I’m concerned: using something that we have for the benefit of this city.”
The project would add two 1,000-square-foot office buildings, a 60,000-gallon firefighting water tank, a 10,000-gallon water storage tank, a natural gas pipeline system totaling two-thirds of a mile, four 840-square-foot engine enclosure buildings with 40-foot-tall exhaust stacks, an additional 40-foot-tall flare stack and a 384-square foot distribution center. Planners estimate its cost to be around $40 million and that it will only add about a half-acre of new land use. (The entire landfill is around 535 acres.)
Proponents argue that it is in the city’s interest to find a more practical use for the landfill’s gases, which are required to be burned off anyway, and that doing so will ensure more reliable power generation for Glendale. Regardless of whether the plant was built, the city would continue to have to operate the flaring system.
The political push for more electrification in place of natural gas will ultimately alter the parameters of Glendale Water and Power’s energy generation, according to GWP Director Mark Young.
“It’s important because as we start to electrify buildings and transportation, the load is going to shift from a daytime peak to a nighttime peak, and wind and solar just can’t supply the load in the evenings,” he told the council. “This is the perfect opportunity for us to get base-loaded energy for us to be able to electrify our system.”
The plant, Young said, would grant the city more energy independence and reduce its need to purchase outside sources of energy, which are both constrained by transmission amounts and likely generated in part by fossil fuel plants. The pending closures of California’s nuclear power plants will only remove clean power options from the table, he added.
Young and other GWP officials also say there is an environmental justice component to processing and burning the gases on-site and not piping it to be used elsewhere — as was done with Glendale’s Grayson Power Plant in the Pelanconi neighborhood from 1996-2018.
“The gas that’s being produced at Scholl Canyon should be handled and processed there,” Young said, “not moved to a more impoverished area that has a higher population, congestion-wise.”
Jackie Gish, speaking on behalf of the Glenoaks Canyon Homeowners’ Association in opposition to the plant, was skeptical of the city’s determination, from its reading of the environmental impact report, that the project would not produce significant adverse effects to the area. She also was suspicious of the city’s estimated power loss — around 10% — from the gas compression, refrigeration and downtime.
Gish also said the otherwise lack of direction for the future of the landfill — which is expected to be filled and shuttered for waste collection in three to five years — made her worry it would simply continue to be industrial. There is an expectation that it, like most landfills, will ultimately become a public recreational space, and it is indeed zoned as such.
“We’re not opposed to utilizing methane sustainably. We’re opposed to the design and location of this specific project on this place at this time,” she said. “What we fear is that there is no plan for the future of Scholl, so we expect the possibility of expanded industrialization.”
Additionally, opponents were concerned that the plant would magnify the risk of a wildfire in the foothills. However, Fire Chief Silvio Lanzas, who touted extensive experience in statewide wildfire response, emphasized that he believed the facility would actually reduce fire risk. The project would include 100 feet of brush clearance around all structures and the design of the buildings and pipelines would allow gas flow and access to be shut off in the event of a fire or an earthquake.
The 60,000-gallon water tank there would only be available for firefighting use, he added. For context, any of the Glendale Fire Department’s engines can carry 500 gallons of water at a time.
“Currently, the flaring operation produces a threat to wildfire,” Lanzas said. “It is an open flame flaring system. These systems that we’re putting into an enclosure, with the enhancements, all the additional things that we are doing up there, are going to be safer.”
On top of input from city planners and the Glenoaks Canyon HOA, the council received 44 phone calls with public comments, including an opposition comment from a representative for Los Angeles, Councilman Kevin de Leon.
Najarian, in voting for the project, said he felt the Planning Commission didn’t look at the issue through the same lens that the council needs to and that the city needs to “hustle” to meet its ambitious power goals. He also took umbrage with callers from outside of Glendale trying to influence the council’s decision.
“I really thank our colleagues on the L.A. City Council for chiming in on this,” he quipped dryly. “If you gave us a little more transmission, we wouldn’t be in this mess. This wouldn’t be an issue.
“Folks from Pasadena, thank you!” he added. “How’s their gas-fired power plant doing? They still running it? OK. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Brotman pushed back against the notion that such a plant would incentivize the city to simply keep the landfill open — state regulations will soon bar landfill disposal of organic waste, which is what decays to produce gases — but nevertheless didn’t believe it was the best use. He said the city should endeavor to address a decades-long quality of life issue with the least negative impact.
“There are many times we’re told something is safe, and it’s not, so I’m not comfortable with that,” he said. “I’m not comfortable with us certifying the EIR, and I’ll leave it there.”
Kassakhian dissented that the biogas could accurately be called a renewable resource, and added that a new industrial plant was likely to doom efforts to repurpose the canyon once the landfill closed.
“It certainly isn’t a fossil fuel, but it is far from a renewable source of energy. The diminishing returns of the supply in that trash pit attest to that fact,” he said. “The size is small in terms of the footprint of the overall site, but a power plant in that area, no matter how small, is like a fly in a bowl of soup. It’s not going to make anyone want to use the rest of the site, with such an industrial presence there.”
After the vote, Brotman successfully tasked the city with preparing a policy firmly dictating the anticipated closure date of the landfill and outlining how it plans to repurpose the area as a special recreation zone.