Tiny Denmark looms large in conservation

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You wouldn't think that Per Holmgard would get many foreign visitors. He's the manager of a large coal-fired power station in a small Danish industrial town set in the Zealand countryside more than an hour's drive from the nearest international airport. The town's only other attractions are an oil refinery and a scattering of industrial parks set along the cool, windswept shores of the Kalundborg fjord.

But Mr. Holmgard receives a steady stream of foreign guests - from German factory managers and Chinese city planners to Japanese journalists and US academics - all on a pilgrimage to see "green" industry in action.

That's because, for nearly two decades, Kalundborg's key industrial firms have been working together to turn a given firm's waste products into raw resources for another, much like various plants and animals do in nature. In the process, the firms have saved money while reducing pollution, and inspired researchers worldwide to rethink how industries use and exchange resources.

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"We're all making money from this," says Mr. Holmgard, who's surprised by all the outside attention. "We have a bit of difficulty understanding why the rest of the world isn't doing it."

Indeed, while much of the rest of the world has been talking about reducing the stresses on the planet's environment, Denmark has actually been doing it. Committed to building a more sustainable, environmentally friendly society, Denmark is emerging as a world leader in everything from "green" industry to renewable energy.

Well-maintained bicycle paths, complete with road signs and traffic lights, connect towns and cities, often running parallel to rural highways. Recycling centers are ubiquitous, helping Denmark boast that half of its waste is recycled. The country generates 13 percent of its electricity from wind and plans to raise that figure to nearly 50 percent by 2030.

Authorities in central Copenhagen have deployed 2000 bicycles in public squares and train stations that can be borrowed for free, while a nationwide tax on automobile purchases more than triples the cost of buying a car. Ninety miles to the southwest, on the windy island of Aero, hundreds of homes get their heat and power from Europe's largest solar power station. Across the country, farm manure and kitchen garbage are delivered to biogas plants that produce uniform fertilizer and a methane fuel burned cleanly at power plants.

"Planning for the environment has always been popular in Denmark," says Christian Matthiessen, a geographer at the University of Copenhagen, who points out that in public opinion polls most Danes say environmental protection is more important than economic growth. "We're an agricultural nation where nobody lives more than 50 kilometers from the sea. The environment has always played a role for everybody."

Water shortage as catalyst

While the government encourages energy efficiency and pollution reduction, many other "green" initiatives were thought up in local communities. Such is the case with Kalundborg.

Twenty years ago, when industry managers in this sleepy industrial town of 15,000 realized they were facing a potential water shortage, they got together to see how they might better share resources. What they came up with not only solved the water shortage, it inspired an entirely new field of scholarly research that promises to revolutionize the way industrial systems are planned and operated.

Starting with water, Kalundborg's key industrial firms found ways to turn one firm's waste products into another's raw resources.

Today, waste heat from the local power plant warms fish farms and most of the area's homes and businesses, while excess steam is piped to a neighboring oil refinery and biotech company. Air scrubbers on the power plant's smokestack turn sulfur dioxide into gypsum, which is then sold to a neighboring plasterboard factory, which dries it in kilns fired by flare gas piped over from the refinery and turns it into wallboard.

The power station uses the refinery's wastewater to keep the scrubbers working. Sludge from the county's wastewater treatment plant is sold to a local soil clean-up company, which uses it to grow the pollution-eating bacteria that cleans contaminated soil brought there from across Denmark. Fly ash from the power station is sold to cement makers or firms that extract valuable metals from the wastes.

In the process, the firms have all saved money while reducing pollution and slashing consumption of water, energy, and other resources. By investing approximately $75 million in this "industrial symbiosis," to date the firms estimate they are saving about $15 million a year.

"We realized we could all make better business if we could trade our wastes," says Thomas Nagy, director of Novoenzymes, a biotech firm located a few minutes' drive from Kalundborg's power station. "It's a matter of attitude and mind-set to be willing to trust your partners and open your doors to one another."

Kalundborg has since inspired researchers in "industrial ecology," which looks for ways to pattern industrial systems after natural ecosystems, in which one organism's waste is another's food. With scores of researchers, company managers, and other interested parties visiting the area every year, the firms have created a joint public information office.

Danes dominate wind power

Other Danish companies completely dominate the booming wind power industry, which was the world's fastest growing source of electricity in the 1990s. Danish companies supplied more than half the turbines now in use worldwide, making it one of the country's largest exports and employing more than 12,000 here. Wind turbines dot the Danish countryside like gigantic pinwheels, and many are owned by cooperatives of local residents who took advantage of tax incentives that encouraged investments in renewable energy.

Because wind power doesn't release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it has helped Denmark meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 21 percent from 1990 levels by the end of the decade.

"We've been able to show the world that wind energy can let you de-carbonize your economy without hurting economic growth," says economist Christian Kjaer of the Danish Wind Manufacturer's Association in Copenhagen. "In certain [foreign] markets we're already able to compete with existing power sources without any subsidies."

At the same time, Danish energy planners are slowly replacing the country's large centralized power stations with a broad network of small local power generators. This is expected to reduce losses from long distance transmission and allow rural communities to heat their homes with the residual heat from their local power station.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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