Feature: Danish city Soenderborg shows way of carbon-free living

Updated: 2011-11-15 03:44:00

(Xinhua)

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SOENDERBORG, Denmark, November 14 (Xinhua) -- In a world addicted to energy, a Danish town has set an ambitious target of becoming carbon neutral by 2029.

Soenderborg, a town located in southern Denmark with around 77,000 people, wants to do this by generating power and heat from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels, and by making its buildings more energy-efficient.

"We have been consuming energy for a hundred years as if energy resources will be there forever. But they will not," said Peter Rathje, managing director of Project Zero, the organization tasked with implementing the 2029 plan.

"Denmark will run out of its own sources of fossil fuel in 10 to 15 years and people will face the fact that energy prices are going up. If we can halve our bills by using sustainable technology like heat pumps, or green district heating, why don't we just go ahead and do it," he said in an interview with Xinhua.

When the project started in 2007, each Soenderborg resident emitted 12 tons of carbon dioxide per year, the average level in the country. The plan is to cut this number to zero in the town.

Already, big gains have accrued from burning the town's household and industrial waste in the local district heating plant, which provides heat and electric power to local buildings.

WASTE NOTHING

"The trick is to take garbage, take as much energy out of it as possible and waste as little as possible," said Anders Kjaergaard, manager of Soenderborg's combined heat and power plant.

The plant devours 70,000 tons of waste per year, primarily burning items that cannot otherwise be recycled, such as food packaging, cardboard and plastic. The garbage is trucked in to the plant, dumped in a giant bin, mixed by a large steel claw, and then burned in an incinerator.

"The heat generated is turned into super-heated steam, and that steam turns the steam turbine which then generates green, electric power which we sell on a daily basis to the grid. When the heat loses energy, we condense it to water for use as domestic hot water and heating, for homes here in Soenderborg," Kjaergaard told Xinhua.

The dual heat and electricity production allows for better energy efficiency and reduced fossil fuel use. The waste itself is considered carbon neutral, as it is a byproduct of items whose carbon emissions have already been accounted for.

Meanwhile, the town is tapping solar energy, geothermal heat from deep below the earth's crust, wind energy and bio-fuels in its quest for renewable power.

There are currently three solar power parks in Soenderborg, where arrays of solar panels setup in green fields trap the sun's rays.

Rathje said the power produced by the parks will pay back their installation costs within 10 years, while their lifespan is at least 30 years.

The town is also prospecting for geothermal energy, and plans to install a geothermal plant, fired by woodchips from sustainable forests, by 2012. When operational, it will mean that all of Soenderborg's heat production becomes carbon neutral.

PARTNERSHIPS

Project Zero's financing depends partly on partnerships between the town's municipal authority, a Danish heating controls manufacturer, a national power and utilities company, and a pan-Nordic bank.

While Soenderborg Municipality finances refurbishment of its own buildings, the other partners finance various initiatives or help develop energy-efficient solutions for the town.

Individual homeowners wanting to refit their houses must raise the necessary capital themselves, but are advised on how best to do so.

"This is about the whole community, not just the municipality or a private company. It means a lot for people here that we are going to be carbon neutral in 2029," said Aase Nyegaard, mayor of Soenderborg.

She told Xinhua that the municipality ensures new buildings are built to low-energy specifications, while pushing refurbishment of old ones. It also encourages use of electric cars in town.

"It is not something that we dictate. We try to make a process so people can see there is an advantage to it, not only in saving money, but also the wider environmental issue," she said of how Soenderborg Municipality has brought local people on board Project Zero.

Beyond green goals, the project also wants to create up to 5,000 green jobs in the area, including engineers, electricians and plumbers to install low-energy products.

"We push for more solutions and new technology from industry, and that will require new research from our universities. In turn, this starts a positive chain reaction in society," Rathje said, referring to the impact of the project on all types of jobs.

SMART HOMES

The Danish government wants Denmark to generate its entire heat and electric supply from renewable sources by 2035, and be entirely carbon neutral by 2050.

As an early mover in this area, Soenderborg is hoping to become a showcase for the rest of the country, both in terms of renewable power and heating, but also in low-energy housing.

Today, buildings account for around 40 percent of Denmark's total annual energy consumption. By encouraging Passive Plus houses, that is, dwellings that produce more energy than they consume, Project Zero hopes to buck this trend.

One such Passive Plus house in Soenderborg produces 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year owing to the solar panels fixed on its roof. This solar power runs its heat pump, which in turn, taps geothermal heat for meeting the hot water needs of its five residents.

The house is covered with 50-centimeter thick insulation material to conserve heat and has 42 separate meters keeping track of its electricity consumption and generation. It sells surplus electricity to the local grid on sunny days, and buys power back in the dark winter.

"It is now documented over a period of two years that you can build and accommodate a family of five in a fully comfortable way in such a house," Rathje said. "So our question is: if we can do this once, why don't we do it every time we build new houses?" he asked.

"It is easy to decrease energy consumption by focusing on installations such as pumps, ventilation systems, and the automatic regulation of heating systems," said Torben Esbensen, a local engineer who helped pioneer Project Zero.

A long-time Soenderborg resident, Esbensen believes the town's switch to low-carbon living is timely and necessary. And its biggest appeal is that the technologies used allow the town's inhabitants to retain their comfortable lifestyle.

"All the things people are used to having in their lives are still here, still running, and there are actually no sacrifices involved in going zero," he said.