architecture waste

Copenhill: a revolutionary clean energy plant?

On our recent train journey up to Sweden, we had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Copenhagen. We didn’t get a chance to visit, but we were rather impressed with the views of Copenhill, the city’s enormous waste to energy plant. I wonder if there’s any other waste to energy plant that would cause children to jump up and down with excitement on spotting it.

I wrote about Copenhill, or Amager Bakke to use its Danish name, back in 2017 when it was new. Now that’s it’s been running for a while, it’s worth looking at it again. Is it working? Has it proved to be a good idea? Here’s an introductory video, with some discussion of the idea below.

Copenhagen has ambitious sustainability goals, aiming to be carbon neutral by 2025. At the heart of their plan is this flagship waste plant. It can take in as much as 600,000 tonnes of municipal waste every year, burning it to deliver both electricity and heat. The biggest contribution is the heat, which is pumped into a district heating system that serves 150,000 households. That’s around a quarter of the city’s heating needs.

Incinerating waste remains controversial, but this is the world’s most advanced waste plant, comfortably out-performing the EU’s standards for best practice. Pollution isn’t the major issue here, and they’ve put the plant right near the city and invited everyone in to see for themselves. It does produce CO2 though. This isn’t exactly clean energy, though district heating from waste has considerably lower CO2 emissions than the gas or coal it replaced.

One of the arguments against incineration is that it incentivises burning rather than better waste strategies like recycling. Denmark has a target of 70% recycling rates by 2025, and waste to energy is supposed to deal with the remainder – in this case the non-recyclable waste from an entire city and the surrounding area. Unfortunately the Danes are slightly too good at recycling and the plant hasn’t had enough to burn.

Although it was specifically ruled out during the planning of the project, the plant has had to import rubbish from overseas to burn. This is embarassing, and of course it increases the emissions from the transport. Some of the waste burned in Copenhagen has come from the UK. It has also burned biomass at times, another thing that had been ruled out initially.

Amager Bakke is basically too big, and it cost too much. The cost overruns mean that it the five municipal authorities that own it have to keep it running or it won’t pay for itself. They can’t afford to let it sit idle, so imports and biomass are making up the difference. That locks Copenhagen into burning stuff, risking their climate targets. It’s possible that the city will miss its 2025 target because of its flagship project, which would be a shame.

What can we learn from Amager Bakke? One obvious lesson is the design itself, which is the thing that it gets the most attention for anyway. Designing an attractive power plant, one that people want to visit, isn’t just about aesthetics. It’s also about transparency. The main reason we didn’t go to see it for ourselves is that there is a three month waiting list to visit the processing plant. Every child in Copenhagen is likely to take a school trip there at some point, and see for themselves what happens to their waste.

Add the imaginative park and high quality public spaces created around, on the top, and even on the sides, and Amager Bakker certainly works as a building, if not a waste strategy.

Is there anything to copy from the power plant itself? I think there is a very limited place for waste to energy plants. They could have a role in district heating in particular, which is trickier than electricity. They would need to be fitted not just with pollution scrubbers, but with carbon capture as well, before we should entertain any similar proposals. Ultimately, we need to move beyond burning things for energy, no matter how modern and exciting the power plant may be.

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