Copenhagen’s dirty, white elephant

It was supposed to be a landmark that combined modern architecture, recreational facilities and sensible Danish waste management. But the multi-billion kroner waste-to-energy plant Amager Bakke will likely be a burden to taxpayers and might slow down other environmental waste strategies

While some cities build skyscrapers or opera houses, Copenhagen is building a very different landmark of its own. Standing 85 meters tall, the Amager Bakke waste-to-energy power plant is set to be the second largest building in Copenhagen when it is finished in 2017.

Amager Bakke is a four-billion-kroner prestige project. Not only will its two enormous incineration ovens turn waste into energy for Copenhageners, it will also be a recreational centre just three kilometres from the City Hall Square, with three artificial ski slopes, a climbing wall and a café.

When the City Council approved the plans for the new incineration plant late 2012, Copenhagen mayor Frank Jensen, was ecstatic.

“The plant will be one of the world’s most environmentally-friendly incineration plants and will provide a showcase for Danish green technology. It will contribute to export and green, sustainable growth,” he declared in press release.

But less than a year before the plant is set to turn on its ovens, it is facing massive difficulties.

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Economically unsustainable
The plant’s biggest problem is that there’s simply not enough trash to burn. The plant has a capacity of about 500,000 tons of trash a year, but the five municipalities that own it, do not produce enough waste to fill the ovens.

Running the plant at a lower capacity will generate less revenue, which could potentially accumulate an operational deficit of 1.9 billion kroner by 2020 – a deficit that tax payers will have to foot.

In an attempt to prevent the plant from becoming an economic burden on the city’s tax payers, the plant has been given the green light to import trash from abroad in order to fill the ovens. In total, it is estimated that the plant will need to import between 90,000 and 115,000 tonnes of trash a year – more than one fifth of the entire capacity.

The plans to import waste breaks with the original political agreement for the plant from 2012, which prohibited importing waste due to climate considerations. However, the new agreement justifies the import by arguing that burning trash is better than dumping it in landfills.

Associate professor Søren Løkke, from the Department of Development and Planning at Aalborg University, acknowledges that importing trash may make sense from a short term environmental and financial standpoint. But he also points out that importing trash is only a temporary measure, because flammable trash is a diminishing product – both in Denmark and around Europe.

“In the short term, you might say that trash is better spent in a Danish incineration oven than being deposited at landfills in the UK, for instance. But in the long run, the British will most likely develop their own incineration plants and increase recycling,” he told Finans.

“In other words, we are basing the economic sustainability of our plant on the obsolete waste management policies of other countries.”

Furthermore, Løkke points out, that the waste market is volatile and fragile. With a forthcoming EU liberalisation of the waste market – combined with fierce competition from incineration plants in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany – even the current back-up plan to sustain Amager Bakke with imported waste, might not be enough to save the plan from a massive deficit in the short term.

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Amager Bakke photographed this summer, while under construction. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Amager Bakke photographed this summer, while under construction. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Dirtier than planned
Jens Peter Mortensen, an environmental expert at The Danish Society for Nature Conservation, fears that the import of trash will hurt the environment and increase Copenhagen’s carbon footprint.

“Imported trash typically consist of paper, cardboard and plastic – typically between 15 to 40 percent plastic. In comparison, Danish waste contains an average of only 11 percent plastic,” he tells the Danish newspaper, Ingeniøren.

Burning plastic releases high levels of greenhouse gasses, such as CO2, meaning that the imported trash will result in increased emissions, which could jeopardise Copenhagen’s ambitious climate plans.

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False promises and lobbying
The entire situation could have been avoided, and the proposed plant was met opposition from the start. Recycling is booming across Europe, while incineration is declining. Not least in Denmark, where 50 percent of all household waste is burned – the highest percentage in all of Europe. At the same time, Denmark has set a goal to recycle 50 percent of household waste by 2018.

The first warnings came in 2010, when the consultancy EA Energianalyse produced a report for Copenhagen City Council on whether there was need for a new incineration plant. In the report, the consultancy warned against building a big, new and expensive plant. Instead, the report suggested that Copenhagen simply upgrade the existing plant in Amager.

At first, Copenhagen politicians heeded the advice. When the publicly-owned waste management company, ARC, asked the city council for a four billion kroner loan to establish a new plant in January 2012, the council refused, referring to the 2010 report.

According to Finans, ARC board member Peter Roulund sent a letter to the Ministry of Finance days before vote, seeking a public declaration that a new incineration plant would not compromise the government’s coming resource strategy.

Then-finance minister Bjarne Corydon also received a letter from a company in his constituency in West Jutland, B&W Vølund, which happened to have won the contract to build Amager Bakke.

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According to several members of Copenhagen City Council, Corydon began to lay pressure on the municipality to agree to the four billion kroner loan. The pressure worked, and Copenhagen City Council approved the loan in September 2012.

Ida Auken was environment minister at the time, and has condemned ARC’s political lobbying.

“The leadership has played politics instead of being civil servants who serve the public interest and decision that are made in the City Hall and government,” she told Finans.

“We now have a facility that – as expected – does not have enough trash and therefore has a massive deficit which Copenhagen taxpayers have to pay.” M

News, Urban

By Jon David Finsen

Born and raised in Copenhagen, Jon holds an M.A. in journalism from Aarhus University.

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