European Plants Generate Energy—and Pride—from Waste

Originally published in 
Burn It Clean
With Europe leading the way, waste-to-energy plants are turning an unlikely resource—garbage—into electricity.

In an industrial area not far from the center of Copenhagen, a giant wedge-shaped edifice is taking shape. When it is finished in 2017, its sharply angled roof will be home to one of the Danish capital’s newest and most unusual tourist draws: a ski slope.

But the building’s name—the Amager Bakke incinerator—exposes it as more than a mere novelty; it’s also an ambitious attempt to solve a vexing problem. When it is up and running, the $650 million piste-topped plant will have the capacity to burn up to 400,000 tons of garbage each year, producing enough heat and electricity for about 150,000 households.

Denmark and other European countries are generating more of their electricity by burning garbage, reducing their energy costs and reliance on fossil fuels while sharply curbing waste on a crowded continent where landfill space is scarce. In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 454 waste-to-energy plants operating in Europe, burning 78 million tons of garbage and industrial waste, according to the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants. In many cases, operators have worked with celebrated architects—Bjarke Ingels in the case of Amager Bakke—to turn these potential eyesores into objects of civic pride, deftly dodging the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) issue.

Contrast this with the United States, where just 86 waste-to-energy plants—no more are planned at present—burn around 29 million tons of refuse per year. A 2013 report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington think tank, cites several reasons for the discrepancy, including the ready availability of cheap landfill space, a patchwork of local policies governing waste disposal, and, surprisingly, opposition from environmental groups that fear a push for waste-to-energy would have the perverse effect of reducing recycling rates.

“Europe is so far advanced in this area because, in the U.S., we have an abundance of cheap land and cheap energy, and in Europe they really don’t have the room for landfills in many countries,” says Matt Kasper, special assistant for the center’s energy policy team and the author of the report. “They also recognize that landfills have a major climate impact, and so they have hastened the development of waste-to-energy and have policies that have restricted the creation of new landfill sites.”

Waste-to-energy plants burn trash in a combustion chamber, generating heat that boils water. The resulting steam spins turbines, generating electricity. Modern plants are outfitted with state-of-the-art scrubbers and filters that capture sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, and other pollutants and clean them before they are emitted, while fly ash and other solids are collected for use in road construction.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires landfills to capture methane, the greenhouse gas that is the primary by-product of rotting garbage, and use it to produce electricity, but a 2009 study that the EPA conducted with North Carolina State University found that landfills emit significantly more pollutants than waste-to-energy plants for each unit of power they generate. Kasper and others argue that the up-front cost of a trash-burning plant—$100 million or more—can be offset with the income from selling energy to the grid and savings from disposing significantly less waste in landfills.

In Europe, many utilities have invested considerable effort in the aesthetics of their waste plants, recognizing the importance of winning over the public. About 21 miles to the west of Amager Bakke, for instance, the Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat has designed a plant whose towering silhouette mirrors that of the nearby 13th-century Roskilde Cathedral. The plans call for lights behind a skin of laser-perforated aluminum to illuminate the plant from base to spire once an hour, Van Egeraat says, transforming it into a glowing beacon and drawing attention to the energy being produced inside.

In the United Kingdom, which levies a landfill tax of 80 pounds (about $131) per ton of waste, the recycling company SITA UK took great care to involve the community in Suffolk, England, in the planning process for a waste-to-energy plant due to open there by the end of 2014, says Anthony Durston, a spokesman. The plant—one of seven energy-from-waste facilities that SITA operates or is building—will have a visitor’s center where the public can learn about the process and view real-time emissions data. And the structure, designed by Grimshaw Architects, will have a reflective polycarbonate skin that will mirror the changing patterns in the sky— a nod, Durston says, to the artist John Constable, a Suffolk native known for painting wide-open landscapes beneath kinetic skies.

“There was a lot of emphasis on the qualities of the design,” Durston says. “We weren’t guaranteed to win this contract; we sensed that was important to our potential customer, the Suffolk County Council, and perhaps our competitors didn’t. I think that was a big driver from the council and the community—to do something that people can be proud of.”

Q&A with Erick van Egeraat

The Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat discusses his design for a towering new waste-to-energy plant in Roskilde, Denmark, and how its aesthetics will help it fulfill its mission of burning 245,000 tons of trash to power 65,000 households annually.

Your firm won a competition in 2008 sponsored by the Danish energy supplier KARA/NOVEREN to design this plant. What made you want to participate?

We think it is very interesting that a company that turns waste into energy has the cultural consciousness to organize an international design competition. They invited a select group of Danish and international architects to make a proposal for the skin of their plant, located in the close vicinity of the Roskilde Cathedral. We regarded it as an interesting challenge to find a suitable design solution for a very technical and, due to its size, incredibly visible utilitarian building in this delicate historical context. The building would have to find a balance between scale, use, landscape, and urban silhouette. In addition to finding that balance, we also wanted to explore the possibilities of expressing the process of turning waste into energy.

How does your design accomplish that?

At night the backlighted perforated facade transforms the incinerator into a gently glowing beacon—a symbol of the plant's energy production. Every hour, a spark of light gradually grows into a burning flame that lights up the entire building. When the metaphorical fire ceases, the building falls back into a state of burning embers.

What did you to do to integrate this plant into its surroundings?

The Roskilde incinerator is created specifically to add value to an otherwise purely industrial surrounding. Enriching the skyline of the small Danish city, the silhouette of the incinerator also provides a historic comment. The lower part of the building resembles the angular roofs of the surrounding factories, but the impressive 328-foot spire is the modern counterpart to the city’s prime historical monument, the Roskilde Cathedral.

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