Waste-To-Energy in Denmark: The Present and the Future

credit: ARC

It's big. It burns 404,000 tons of garbage per year. It's 40 years old and doesn't meet current European emission standards. It's just a few kilometers from downtown Copenhagen. And surprisingly, it is totally non-controversial, it is claimed to be 80% carbon neutral, and it feeds hot water and electricity to hundreds of thousands of people. It represents a completely different approach to dealing with waste than North Americans are used to. TreeHugger and a few other bloggers were invited on a tour of the plant, as part of our visit to INDEX: Design to improve life.

credit: ARC

In North America, the prevailing attitude is that recycling and composting of organics is the greenest way to go. An anti-incinerator website claims:

According to the U.S. EPA, “waste to energy” incinerators and landfills contribute far higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions and overall energy throughout their lifecycles than source reduction, reuse and recycling of the same materials. Incineration also drives a climate changing cycle of new resources pulled out of the earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and then wasted in incinerators and landfills.
Unfortunately, almost nobody is doing enough recycling and composting; most of North American garbage is still being landfilled. in Copenhagen they are not shipping garbage all over the country. They are keeping it close at hand, within the city itself, and they are not landfilling anything.
credit: Lloyd Alter

ARC, the municipally owned non-profit that runs the plant, claims that of all the garbage they collect, 85% is recycled, 2% is specially handled (stuff like batteries and chemicals) and only 13% is incinerated, mostly organics and some plastics, although when I looked at what was going into the holding area, there was a LOT of plastics. No bag bans here. They claim that the whole operation is 80% carbon neutral because they are burning organic material, with only 20% of the carbon dioxide released coming from all that plastic.

credit: ARC

The garbage is dumped into a giant chamber and picked up by computerized cranes, dried out in the yellow area with flue gases, then moved to the four furnaces in the red area, which heat water in boilers to make high pressure steam, running turbines that produce 28 megawatts. The hot water then supplies district heating for 120,000 houses.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Then the gases are filtered, run through limestone and other technologies to remove furans and dioxins, through big bags to remove particulates. It is all carefully monitored. However it is not up to current environmental standards, and they are running the plant on temporary extensions of their operating permits until the new plant is completed.

credit: Lloyd Alter

What comes out of the plant, other than CO2 from the stack? This, a pile of slag. It is processed to remove the metals and chemically bound up in concrete that is used for road beds.

credit: Lloyd Alter

It is all clean as a whistle, friendly and open; from the roof you see wind turbines and wakeboarders being ziplined around a course. The kids in the wetsuits are just a harbinger of things to come with the new plant.

credit: BIG

The new plant is designed by the BIG, short for Bjarke Ingels Group. The firm won an international competition to get the job, with their proposal which turns the plant into a giant entertainment center.

credit: ARC

Technically, the plant will handle about the same amount of garbage as the current one. However it will use a "wet" smoke cleaning system that will remove 85% of nitrous oxide, 99.9% of hydrochloric acid, 99.5% of sulfur. It will get 25% more energy out of more efficient turbines, squeezing almost every watt out of the exhaust and running at, they claim, 100% efficiency. They will provide district heating to 160,000 homes and electricity to 62,000.

credit: BIG

However the architecture is a whole other story, and it's wild.

credit: Lloyd Alter

We visited the office of BIG to learn more about the project. They are pretty spectacular, in a former Carlsberg bottle cap factory.

credit: Lloyd Alter

It is a pretty wonderful, detailed model, showing a big glass elevator that takes people to the roof where there is an observation deck, and which is also the start of the longest and highest ski run in Denmark.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Really, only Bjarke could pull this kind of thing off, the idea of skiing on the roof of an incinerator, of a building being any more than a utilitarian factory is unheard of in North America. This just a different way of thinking.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Inside, it is all about transparency, about everyone seeing how it works, they have nothing to hide.

credit: BIG

It really is a completely different attitude toward infrastructure. In North America nobody will spend a dime on amenities; Congress strips bike lanes and landscaping out of highway bills, design competitions are rarely held, infrastructure projects are often design-build where there is barely an architect involved. In Copenhagen, they make it so enticing that people are probably saying "put it in my backyard, please!" Certainly, if you are going to put an incinerator in the middle of town, this is the way to sell it.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Thanks to BIG, and to INDEX: Design to Improve Life.