The energy crisis has put district heating very high on the agenda in Denmark – primarily prompted by the war in Ukraine. District heating has become synonymous with the security of supply and, in the vast majority of cases, represents a stable, relatively low price compared to individual natural gas heating. With district heating at the top of the agenda, in mid-October, I went to the “IEA Future Buildings Forum Think Tank Workshop” in Ottawa, Canada.
More than 70 people who came from, among others, Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Netherlands, Japan, Portugal, Switzerland, USA, and Austria attended the workshop. The 70 participants represent utilities, research, advisers, interest organizations, and political interests.
I participated in several group works but also contributed to the workshop with a presentation on ensuring that a 35-year-old district heating system – such as VEKS – can still meet the expectations/demands of modern district heating customers. How do we update and maintain the physical and administrative system, so it functions efficiently?
The foreign participants also had a great interest in the Danish approach after the oil crises in the 1970s. Back then, politicians decided to let district heating be the backbone of Danish building heating – based on various technologies.
The fact that we in Denmark use residual waste for the co-production of district heating and electricity is known far beyond Denmark’s borders. The fact that it also helps to ensure sensible district heating prices creates envy.
Everything’s fine so far: I can be proud as a Dane.
Capacity is in demand.
On the other hand, something completely different caused a great surprise: the politicians in Christiansborg have decided to cut the capacity of the Danish waste-to-energy plants by 30% by 2030. The reason is to reduce the import of residual waste from other European countries. This capacity limitation made no sense to my international colleagues.
When I explained that the capacity reduction would reduce the annual Danish emission of CO2 by 500,000 tonnes, they understood absolutely nothing.
“It does not solve our common challenges with reducing CO2 that you put a cheese bell over Denmark. The consequence will be an overall increase in CO2 emissions in Europe?” was one reaction. Another said: “and how can you consider closing combustion capacity when Europe needs ALL alternatives for energy production to replace Russian natural gas?”
Questions I could not answer
According to Eurostat, around 55 million tons are deposited annually in Europe – household waste and similar commercial waste in landfills. If we include waste from industry and construction, the figure reaches a staggering 150 million tonnes per year.
With increased sorting/recycling, the expectation is that in 2035 there will still be a shortage of incineration capacity of 40 million tons of residual waste annually.
But why isn’t the waste burned, as we do in Denmark? The answer is quite simple: There is a lack of combustion capacity.
Excess heat is cooled away.
There are no such well-developed district heating systems in Europe as in Denmark, where the waste energy plants can utilize the surplus heat from the incineration for district heating and electricity production. These revenues provide a robust company economy.
Waste energy plants outside Denmark’s borders often do not produce district heating but, at best, electricity at low efficiency. This results in poor operating/company finances and naturally limits the willingness to build new waste-to-energy plants. Often all excess heat is cooled away in cooling towers.
Therefore, there is no immediate realistic hope that up to 150 million tons of waste currently deposited in Europe should disappear any time soon.
So stopping the Danish import of around 360,000 tonnes of residual waste/year – out of a potential of 40-150 million tons/year – solves nothing. On the contrary. We will all be losers:
- The environment: The total CO2 emissions in Europe are increasing.
- Resource consumption: There will be increased resource consumption for the production of Danish district heating and electricity in the form of, e.g., sustainable biomass and RE electricity.
- District heating customers: The heating price increases for customers who get district heating from a waste energy plant.
- The waste customers: The waste fees increase for the citizens who deliver waste to a waste-to-energy plant.
- “Our common household”: The Danish state loses tax revenue from district heating production.
An English colleague briefly summed it up with a well-known quote from the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Unfortunately, I had to agree with him. The problems of our time are too serious for “bubble-thinking” in Denmark. We are part of a community in which the war in Ukraine has also shown its seriousness and cruelty.
By Lars Gullev, VEKS’ CEO