Copenhagen Close-up: Denmark’s Thrifty Use of Bioenergy

Stephen Smith | December 18, 2009 | Climate Change, Energy Policy

This post was co-authored by John Bonitz

“We do need a ‘new economy,’ but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.” ~ Wendell Berry

inbicon_aerial_photoNo doubt, it was this kind of thinking that inspired the new Inbicon Biomass Refinery in Kalundborg, Denmark that I learned about as result of attending the climate negotiations.  Located about 1.5 hours drive from Copenhagen, this remarkable new cellulosic ethanol plant is a model of thrift and care, saving and conserving.  It is a great example of industrial ecology, and one we Southerners can learn from.

The Inbicon Biomass Refinery is not merely an advanced cellulosic ethanol plant, it is also a factory for molasses, renewable biomass pellets for electricity, as well as a consumer of waste steam from the adjacent coal-fired Asnaes Power Station, owned by DONG Energy.

The Inbicon Biomass Refinery will initially be fed by 300,000 tons per year of baled wheat straw.  Waste steam from the power plant is used to break down the straw fibers in the refinery. This symbiotic relationship with power production eliminates the need for the fossil fuels and expensive heating infrastructure in typical ethanol plants.

By using recycled thermal energy, this biorefinery reduces the greenhouse gas emissions associated with biofuel production, improving the life-cycle impacts and making greener transportation fuels.  The major waste product from the biochemical and enzymatic processes is lignin which, when solidified into pellets, will displace some of the coal burned by the power plant, producing greener electricity.  (This is another example of Denmark’s efforts to completely eliminate coal from their electric generation industry.)

img_1443Although I didn’t get to see the Inbicon operations, I was fortunate enough to see two smaller biomass-run operations outside of Copenhagen when fellow delegates and I were invited to meet with local business and government (municipality) officials.  We were shown a small biogas unit run by a Danish pig farmer who collects animal waste from his operations and five other nearby farms to produce modest amounts of biopower in a way that sustainably handles the waste and methane.

Then we saw a combined heat and power (CHP) plant that generates over 85% of the heat for the town through burning a combination of wheat straw bales and solid waste.  While burning municipal solid waste has environmental drawbacks, it should be noted that this heat and power plant has been in continuous operation for more than 17 years without burning a lump of coal and with only minimal use of natural gas during coldest, peak times.


Seeing the bales of wheat straw, I was reminded of a conversation with a farmer from South Carolina I met through the SAFER Alliance.  He told me that that here in the Southeast, wheat farmers who use climate-friendly no-till practices often must bale their wheat straw to simply get it out of the way, so their seed drills can reach the soil and get a good seed-start. Lacking markets for the baled wheat straw, they may open-burn it or leave it to rot.  Ordinarily, this biomass is helpful to leave in the field, both to prevent erosion and to add carbon to the soil.  However, since they are already removing this material from the fields as a matter of course, using the bales for bioenergy would be better than the current options — both open-burning and rotting are worst-case scenarios for the climate (due to the emissions of VOCs and soot from uncontrolled combustion, and the methane from decomposition).  Maybe we could use a biorefinery like Inbicon’s here in our region?

Another remarkable thing about this project is the relationship between the different industries (agriculture, transportation fuels, animal feed, coal and biomass electricity) and how they are mirrored in the diversity of corporate partners for this project.  In addition to Danish companies that may be unfamiliar here in the South (Inbicon, DONG Energy, Statoil, Biobrændstof), there are Danish comanies with Southeastern operation centers.  The enzymatic partners include Novozymes (with U.S. headquarters in North Carolina) and Danisco Genencor (a 50% partner in the Vonore, Tennessee pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol biorefinery), both of which were exhibitors at the Bright Green Expo my colleague attended earlier this week.

The relationships have extended even further to embrace Scandinavian carmaker Volvo. Their cars, built to run on E85 blend of ethanol, are being used to transport foreign dignitaries and conference delegates during the climate negotiations.  Because of the 2nd generation ethanol, Inbicon calculates that their technology reduces a car’s CO2 emissions by 85% compared to conventional gasoline.  …All thanks to the biomass from Denmark’s rich agricultural soils, plus a hearty dose of thrift and care, saving and conserving.

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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