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Warmed by incineration

Winters in Copenhagen are long, dark and freezing, and white Christmases are a given rather than a light-hearted bet. The on-again off-again oil embargos collectively remembered as ‘the 70s oil crisis’ hit Denmark particularly hard as it was 90% dependent on foreign oil at that time. The silver lining to the cloud is that the crisis created perfect conditions for a radical policy to take root and Denmark’s green economy has never looked back.

The citizens of Copenhagen who shivered so violently throughout the long cold winters of the 1970s are now kept warm by a municipally-owned district heating system. Around 435,000 tonnes of waste is collected annually, incinerated and returned to 70,000 local residents as heating. Homes don’t have their own boilers – heat is piped directly to them from the city incinerator 365 days a year.

Homes don’t have their own boilers – heat is piped directly to them from the city incinerator 365 days a year

The plant also supplies electricity, which is fed into the grid and takes priority over energy from coal. If demand is low, coal fired power stations are powered down in favour of using energy from waste. An energy bridge has been built between Denmark and Sweden and since the 1980s Denmark has been a net exporter of electricity.

Amagerforbrænding is 2km from Copenhagen’s city centre, “it’s good because we have easy access to a good, continuous supply of fresh waste,” my guide, Esben Norrbom, tells me. It’s on common bus routes; it’s well known, possibly because of the emphasis placed on education. Local schools are actively encouraged to bring children along for lessons in waste and recycling - the plant’s specially trained teachers are currently handling 10 school visits a week. “It’s important to teach the children young in order to achieve the high recycling rates and it’s good for them to know the energy value of the waste from their houses. Most children are surprised to know that one four kilogram bin makes three and half hours of electricity and four hours of heating,” says Norrbom.

The architecture of the building is not unlike my local leisure centre back in the UK

The architecture of the building is not unlike my local leisure centre back in the UK. It’s brightly coloured with large paintings and sculptures throughout; even the pit has a 40-foot mural on the wall. On my way through reception I pass a rack of canoes, Norrbom doesn’t really comprehend my interest in the canoes, “of course we have leisure activities for our staff, we also run gymnastics classes, and we have a gym and a running club” he says, in a tone of voice that suggests I’m a bit bonkers for asking. Copenhagen is a cluster of islands, there is large river at the front of the plant, it’s a bit cold today, but in the summer those canoes must be great fun for lunch breaks.

In Denmark 70% of all waste is recycled and 24% incinerated. The incinerated waste at Amagerforbrænding is 50:50 domestic and commercial wastes. The plant is municipally owned and not for profit.  Most of the profits are invested into research. It is currently investing in a project that is trying to turn waste in storable energy, a liquid fuel, like crude oil or a biomass equivalent.

In the silo two laser controlled, automatically operated, five tonne grabbers turn the waste and feed the four furnaces every 15 minutes. The plant will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, which Norrbom says, will make it one of the oldest incinerators in the world. When the plant began to produce electricity in 1991 a 20-megawatt turbine was installed. A second eight-megawatt turbine was added later and the plant currently produces enough electricity for 70,000 households.

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