Copenhagen Close-up: The Danes Show the Path Away from Dirty Coal

Stephen Smith | December 13, 2009 | Climate Change, Coal, Energy Policy

This post was co-authored by Ulla Reeves.

Today as I flew into Copenhagen, I was struck by two very different views of energy production, the large wind turbines off the Danish coast and dotting their farmlands juxtapositioned with the many large smoke stacks surrounding the city.  This contrast shows a country in transition, because in Denmark, a significant effort is being made to clean up, retire, and repower dirty old coal units because their contribution to climate change and dirty air is significant and unwanted. In fact, Denmark decided in 1997 (some sources say 1996) to just go ahead and ban the burning of coal in new facilities in the country. Yes, that’s right, the Minister for the Environment banned coal – a dramatic move that seems implausibly beyond reach for America, where our coal seams run deep and cheap, but the Danes have a long history of environmental leadership and few domestic coal interests to lobby against such a measure.

We chose to provide this small window into the choices that Denmark is making about their old coal burning facilities copenhagensince Denmark is home to this year’s international climate negotiations in Copenhagen.  Denmark is ahead of the Southeast and U.S. in making aggressive choices to implement environmental policies and regulations that are driving the design of multi-fuel, combined heat and power plants to increase fuel flexibility, dramatically improve efficiency, and decrease their carbon footprint. But their road is not an easy one. Currently, fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas account for 85% of Danish energy consumption.

There are 9 (high efficiency) power plants in Denmark serving power to roughly 5.4 million people – a population smaller than the state of North Carolina and with less industrial activity. At some point in time, they all burned coal, but in recent years, Denmark has made aggressive moves to fuel-switch (or co-fire) all of these facilities to cut the carbon dioxide emissions significantly. Over the course of their energy history, the Danes have experimented with a wide array of fuel sources, from fuel oil to natural gas and coal to bio-energy. While Denmark has no coal mines of its own, they still generate 50 percent of their electricity by burning imported coal, but are exporting natural gas and oil.

By the 1980s the Danes were realizing the negative environmental impacts of burning coal and began controlling the NOx and SO2 emissions. In 1994, a new 570MW coal unit was proposed (Avedore), but only with the commitment that the owner-operators, SK Power, had to decommission three older coal-fired power plants to reduce net emissions of CO2 (10%), NOx (20%) and SO2 (30%). By 1996-97 the government had made the decision to ban new coal-fired power plants and by 2030 all existing coal facilities must be converted to another fuel source, making Denmark completely coal-free in 2030.

Simple diagram of district heating concept.

The government has imposed a series of carbon taxes on all energy production in order to advance these tough regulations to ween the country off coal, and thus, Danish households do pay some of the higher electricity prices among IEA (International Energy Agency) countries. According to the Energy Regulatory Authority, the consumer price of electricity was the equivalent of 46 cents a kilowatt hour in 2008 (that’s 3 times the cost of U.S. power). Without all of the taxes included, however, Danes actually have some of the cheapest electricity prices in Europe (only 30% of the charges actually go to the electricty costs). To see the impressive list of climate and energy-related policies that Denmark uses to encourage these systemic changes toward a carbon-neutral society, visit the IEA website.

The Avedore CHP Station: one of the world’s most efficient, fuel-flexible and environmentally optimal CHP plants. Photo courtesy: Niels Jakob Darger
The Avedore CHP Station: one of the world’s most efficient, fuel-flexible and environmentally optimal CHP plants. Photo courtesy: Niels Jakob Darger

The majority of Denmark’s energy comes from large Combined Heat and Power (CHP) facilities (of the 9 power plants, 7 are CHP). Power plants that are designed with CHP capabilities are extremely efficient because the waste heat that is typically lost from turning fuel into steam for power can now be captured and used for home and building heating systems. The Danes call this system “district heating” and more than 50% of the space heating supply in the country comes through 200+ district heating networks. Presently, nearly ninety-eight percent of all the heat used in Demark’s 10 major cities comes from CHP facilities connected to district heating systems.

In addition to having extremely efficient CHP plants in which this surplus energy is turned into heat, Denmark has emphasized fuel-switching and gradual co-firing of renewable materials at these facilities from coal to predominately biomass fuel sources. The country’s goal is to have 35% of their energy supply from renewable resources by 2030 (mostly from biomass and wind energy). In 2000, biomass was already 45% of their renewable portfolio.

A company named Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest utilities and wholly owned by the Swedish government, announced in early 2009 that they…

“…will start powering its [2] coal-fired power plants in Denmark with biomass fuel. The initiative fits into the company’s MaxBio program that aims to replace 724,000 tons of coal per year, starting in 2018. Replacing coal with biomass will prevent 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere from the company’s three Danish coal plants.”

This effort will cost Vattenfall 60 Billion Danish Crowns through 2016, but works toward their company plan:

“The entire Vattenfall Group is fully engaged in changing our power plants and production methods such that we can meet the expectations that the world has on us to provide clean, environmentally friendly energy,” said Hans von Uthmann, Vattenfall’s vice president and head of Vattenfall Norden.biomass

The company claims that “replacing coal with biomass is a quick and effective method of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.” We agree, as long as the biomass is coming from sustainably harvested resources. Interestingly, several of the other coal-fired units in Denmark are already converted to biomass and are burning a wide array of fuel sources including various granulated biomass products such as meat, bone meal, olive stones, or shea nuts. Biomass is currently the largest contributor to Danish renewable energy production, with most of it from agriculture and forestry byproducts and municipal waste. Straw bales are the principal source of biomass.

So, while the Danes are still burning some coal in their power plants and into the foreseeable future most energy produced in Denmark will continue to be based on coal and other fossil fuels, you can see that their commitment to move themselves away from the fossil fuel era is serious, already well underway, and not an insignificant challenge. Similar to Denmark, a large part of our power (60%) in the Southeast comes from coal-fired power plants and other fossil fuels.  The Southeast is not using near our potential in high efficient CHP facilities.  To meet our needed climate goals, we will have to develop the vast CHP resources states and aggressively harness the  renewable resources like offshore wind, biomass and solar that we have available to us.

Let’s join Denmark and go coal-free by 2030!

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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