This past fall, I had the privilege to join Rob Thornton in Copenhagen for the annual Danish district heating conference, a rare opportunity to interact with district energy professionals from Denmark. Our host, Birger Lauersen, manager of international affairs for the Danish District Heating Association, was a gracious host, as were his members. While there was much to learn about what they do differently in Denmark, from their energy sector to their culture in general, I also found many of the same challenges and opportunities that exist in North America today.
First, the differences. The concept of sustainability is held in high esteem, not only by district energy professionals but by ordinary citizens who were quick to point out the sustainability features in their daily lives. They shared them with a sense of national pride. There was no sense of polarization about the science of sustainability - only a universal acceptance of the wisdom to think sustainably. For instance, we found canal tours advertising that their boats were made from 100 percent recycled material and featured solar-powered motors. This company's first marketing asset for renting a boat was sustainability.
Also, while the U.S. and Canada use government incentives like tax credits for solar and wind power to drive sustainable behavior, the Danish government has gone much further. Case in point: Denmark has a very high level of taxation on fossil energy use in households, public buildings and the service sector, while sectors exposed to foreign competition, such as industry and agriculture, are exempted. Originally introduced in response to the oil crisis of the 1970s, this policy has been maintained - and refined with specialized taxes on CO2, SO2 and NOx emissions - to ensure continued efforts toward improving energy efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of energy consumption. Plus, Copenhagen is very much a bike culture, with 70 percent of citizens owning no car. One professor whom I met over dinner said that his wife's company employed 250 people in Copenhagen, of which two-thirds rode bikes to work, and the remaining third took public transportation. Not a single person drove. I must admit, the air in Copenhagen was the freshest of any big city I have visited.
This type of thinking has led the local district energy industry - which supplies 99 percent of all buildings in Copenhagen with thermal comfort and domestic hot water - to dig even deeper to achieve new levels of energy savings than we do in North America. For instance, the Danes are starting to connect into the refrigerators of grocery stores in order to capture waste heat. They realize there is little heat to be gained from doing so but are committed to tapping all forms of waste heat, even though the low-hanging fruit has long since been picked.
There are similarities in the Danish and North American energy sectors as well. The entire energy industry in Denmark depends on signals from government leaders on which business strategies to pursue, which can have unintended consequences. For example, the marginal cost of electrical power in the winter is zero, as wind turbines often produce more power than the country requires. However, if using electricity for heat production, as politically desired, district heating providers must financially contribute to the wind-support scheme. As a result, this surplus electricity then cannot compete financially with natural gas, so the result is that natural gas is often used in winter to heat boilers. While natural gas certainly has less environmental impact than coal or oil, it has more than wind power. Also, much like in the U.S., the Danish government is now mired in partisanship that limits the probability of future energy policies moving forward.
Overall, the biggest similarity to me was the passion we all share for using smart district energy to help improve our world as a whole. District heating is a big reason Copenhagen is the clean, environmentally friendly city that it is; and district energy, throughout the country, is a big reason Denmark is one of the most sustainable countries on the planet. There, in North America and elsewhere, district energy is moving much of our world in a sustainable direction.
Principal and Regional Manager
RMF Engineering Inc.
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