“It is particularly ironic that the battle to save the world's remaining healthy ecosystems will be won or lost not in tropical forests or coral reefs that are threatened but on the streets of the most unnatural landscapes on the planet.”- Worldwatch Institute. 2007

Saturday, 18 September 2010

September 18th - Niels and Jorgen and SkiveKommun

today by cycle 3km
today by car 30km
Transport carbon emissions for the day 6.03kg\CO2

I’m sat at the balcony of an apartment in the Hotel Strandtangen, overlooking Skive marina with a bottle of Tuborg and a slice of almond tart so disgustingly good that I’ve cut myself another slice before I’ve even finished the first. It has a mezzanine bedroom (and another one but I know where I’m sleeping) and Terence Conran wouldn’t turn his nose up at it.

I have a good reason for this.
Errrmm… they let me have it for the same price as a room? And from here I can see when the wooden ships start arriving so I can work up to the last minute, and it’s Saturday.

So this morning I met Niels and Jǿrgen outside the Town Hall, ‘the only building like this in the whole of Denmark – the whole of the EU’ and it very possibly is.
They are half of the council’s engineering team the other members being Michael Petersen, the boss, who is in Copenhagen this weekend with family but kindly volunteered his colleagues to come out on a Saturday and look after me, and Alexander (I think) who is the numbers man and has reams of data on all the systems they are about to show me. Between them they are responsible for all of the council’s buildings across the municipality, about 400 in total including 50 schools. Most of these have some form of renewable energy, at least solar thermal and biodiesel heating.

They take me into the basement of the town hall and show me the three biodiesel CHPs (25kW elec, 40kW thermal) which, combined with 273m2 of solar thermal collectors on the roof, does all of the heating and most of the electricity for the 5000m2 building. They also provide cooling, via an absorption cooler, for the server rooms and the politicians chambers (needed because they talk so much hot air presumably). They also have a heat pump which they use to create a 800m2 ice rink outside the post office between December and March. They have a 32,000 litre underground storage tank for rainwater which is used for toilet flushing, laundry and cleaning. This provides for more than half their water consumption. I ask about the vertical axis wind turbine on the roof and they laugh. ‘It’s a toy,’ says Niels ’the third one we’ve tried. The others were horizontal axis and were always looking for the wind. This one – it turns but it doesn’t give the output – they’re not for buildings.’ We look at the control panel and sure enough it’s putting out 410W, less than half of its1kW rating, despite the fact it is spinning furiously. The building is naturally ventilated (as are most new buildings in Denmark) with the central corridors on timers and the offices linked to CO2 sensors. It’s all controlled from the engineering office. People can modify their temperature by 2°C either way. ‘If they want more than that,’ says Jǿrgen ‘ they have to bring us coffee and cake!’.

Denmark has only got a feed in tariff this year, after us, since the first of June. And the tariff is only one for one, you get the same as you would pay if you bought it. This explains the lack of individual rooftop PV arrays. I ask about solar thermal but it seems that with the combination of district heat and technical problems with the systems ‘ OK they’re not rocket science but they can have a lot of problems. Drainback is good but it’s expensive’ people are put off. Also electricity is so costly that energy efficiency is always the first investment.
I tell them about the CIBSE conference three years ago, after the 40% house talk when it was reckoned that a reduction to 40% carbon emissions could be achieved on a typical house for a cost of between £7-21,000. The speaker finished up by saying ‘It seems like a lot of money but really how much is it? The price of a family holiday abroad? Of a conservatory? Of a new car?’ The first question afterwards was a guy who said he’d like to know how many people in the room, given £21,000 would choose a new conservatory over energy efficiency. In a room full of maybe 200 building services engineers, almost 80% of the hands went up. Neils and Jorgen are baffled. No no, they say, energy is expensive. You can buy a lot of insulation and new windows for that.

Up on the roof we look at the dry coolers and the one evaporative cooler, also run with rainwater.They clean it out every year and don't worry about legionella. They point out the site of the new five storey technik building where they plan to use ground source heat and an ORC plant to make electricity from heat (only requiring about 80 degrees apparently, refrigerant based, and coming in 10kW units. I’m unfamiliar with this as a concept – unless it’s got a different name). A large chimney is the local CHP running the town's district heating.

After they have finished showing me the town hall we drive to Skivehus School which has the biggest PV array in Denmark. Copenhagen had tried to claim this title but, they tell me, ‘Our boss waits to see how big theirs will be and then adds some more, so now this is the biggest’ And it is big -1700m2 with an addition 420m2 of solar thermal. After this Niels leaves us and Jǿrgen takes me on to Breum School. Until now he has seemed quiet but with the ebullient Niels gone he becomes more animated. Breum is a ‘typical’ school for the region he says although later admits that it’s not quite typical but a little better but that most of them will be like this within the next two years. It has a small (by comparison with the town hall) solar thermal array and a rapeseed oil plant.
They buy the rapeseed in very cheap locally. Jǿrgen says it’s very bad quality, pointing out the chaff that’s in with it through a little viewing window. The seeds themselves look like mustard seed. They pass through a grinder which extracts the oil and turns out the remaining solids in a thin cylinder – the same as wood pellets. The pellets are being burnt in a boiler but in the holidays they bag them up and sell them. The boiler is around five years old and so will soon be replaced, not because it’s near the end of its 15-20 year service life but because the newer ones are so much more efficient. ‘The new ones,’ says Jǿrgen ‘they are beautiful. I love them, I could marry one of them’. The oil is run through a gravity filtration system and then sold on. They can’t use it for the school boilers because it’s illegal to run on food oil, which rapeseed oil is classed as, if the electricity is being fed back into the grid. The Town Hall doesn’t feed back into the grid so that one can use it but most of the fuel for that comes from rendered fat from local slaughterhouses. A lot of the equipment they make themselves. ‘Everyday’, he says ‘ we have to invent something new. We cannot look on the internet because this has never been done before’.
I ask how they get away with using solar thermal on schools when they biggest output comes in the summer holidays, when it’s not needed. He looks at me like I’m simple and says that the caretaker will open the windows and turn the radiators up full on the last day of term. In another building they have a small biodiesel CHP but it doesn’t use the rapeseed oil, ever, because they feed in the electricity. They have three Viessman gas back up boilers but these are never used – it’s so expensive. I ask Jǿrgen if the school maintenance staff look after this lot but he tells me not. They do the day to day stuff but if anything breaks down they call him.

The rapeseed oil plant is part of the ‘not typical’ school and is something they won’t replicate. If they installed this on all the schools they could quickly bottom out the local market for oil. I ask if there is legislation to stop them doing this but it seems it is an ethical decision. ‘It would be wrong, it’s not the way we’re raised’. I don’t pursue it. Bad enough that he thinks we’re stupid enough to air condition buildings and heat our conservatories before insulating our roofs without him thinking we’re plain evil. Nobody in Skive locks their bikes.
I wonder how they have managed to make so much progress. The boss it seems is something of a visionary. For 25 years he’s been trying things, proving that they save money (they saved 68 million Danish kroner in the last year on energy bills) and then getting the go ahead to do more and more. ‘The only problem is his head,’ says Jǿrgen ‘it’s 20 years in the future. He comes up with things and then me and Niels and Alex, we have to make it work in the real world’.
That reminds me of someone.

There is a plan, Jǿrgen says, whereby the heating main could be fed into by everyone. That everyone who wanted could have a CHP plant and feed in heat and electricity. I think of Werner and his ‘democratic energy’ and Emoeke, who asked Andreus from the Stadtwerk if he could imagine a time when people would all own the heating grid (he looked baffled and shook his head). ‘Is this being discussed now?’ I ask, thinking it’s a council strategy for energy. ‘Yes,’ he tells me’ we are discussing it - us four. We think we can make it happen’. I believe him. And I think the world needs more visionary engineers who aren’t afraid to take a chance.


  1. Good stuff again, if I miss a couple of days I'm worried I won't be able to catch up.
    Just wondering if the "opening the windows up and turning radiators on" comment was a joke ?

  2. Ah..no. The thing is with solar thermal if your array is big enough to produce your hot water needs in the winter then it massively over produces in the summer which can lead to the collectors over heating. So you sometimes need a heat dump but of course radiators are exactly that so if you're not using a room then dumping your heat to the radiators is as good a way as any of protecting the system. Certainly more cost effective than installing dedicated equipment to do the same job.

  3. a rivetting read indeed - every day yet more, keep it up!