Saturday, 20 June 2009

Saving the Earth Dutch Style

This week I was in Holland, being shuttled around the country on a press tour showing journalists various environmental projects. I know it’s almost cliché to say this at this point, but coming from the Anglo-Saxon world I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed at how much further along countries like the Netherlands are in developing sustainable solutions to climate change. Many of these solutions have been being developed since long before climate change became a prominent issue, and people have largely gotten used to the adjustments they’ve had to make to their daily lives. One example was this houseboat, pictured right.

The other journalists on this tour were an interesting mix, coming within Europe from Brussels, Germany, Denmark, Spain and the Czech Republic as well as further afield from China, India, Brazil and South Africa. It was interesting to hear everyone’s comparisons with what’s going on in their home countries, particularly the developing BRIC countries.

There were also interesting comparisons we could make between countries in the EU, particularly with Denmark and Germany which are also quite far along in developing sustainability projects. One funny detail was that many of the Dutch presenters for the projects would wistfully say that what they have might be good, but it’s nothing compared to what they have in Germany. This made my German colleague laugh, because in Germany apparently they always think of Dutch as having the height of green achievement. Two such modest peoples!

One of the more interesting sites we visited was energy-from-waste incineration plant in Amsterdam called the Waste and Energy Company, a public utility.

Having never seen a trash incineration plant before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But I had plenty of pre-conceived notions about massive industrial plants spewing out plumes of noxious gas they torch piles of needless human waste. When our bus pulled up it looked like this was going to be the reality, as we could immediately see two giant smokestacks pouring white smoke into the air. However once inside and given a tour, I was surprised by many of the things I learned about the plant. The facility, which processes over 1.4 million tonnes of municipal and industrial waste annually, is actually the largest waste processor at a single location in the world. Two freight trains and 600 garbage trucks deliver trash to the facility each day.

Gross right? But astonishingly, the facility is able to recycle nearly 99% of the waste it receives. It does so by using the heat produced from burning the garbage to generate energy, much like a coal plant burns coal to produce energy. The facility produces 1 million MWh of electricity per year, enough to cover three quarters of Amsterdam households. All of Amsterdam’s public transportation is powered from the plant, as well as all street lights. The plant also uses the excess hear generated during the burning to provide businesses and homes with heat and hot water. Thus two environmental issues are solved: what to do with garbage and how to create energy without using finite resources like oil, coal and gas.

That’s all well and good, you may say, but what about the toxic emissions that are produced from the burning process? Well the AEB plant has devised a way to treat this. During the burning process, the steam (which drives the turbine) is separated from the smoke, and the smoke is then extensively filtered through flue-gas cleaning, which actually takes up 2/3 of the whole plant! By a process of separation, new materials are extracted from the gas. The sulphur recovered is used for the production of plaster board and blocks for the building industry, and the calcium chloride extracted can be used to defrost roads in winter. And the metal waste that can’t be burned is extracted, ground into bottom ash, and made into artificial sand for use in the construction of roads and buildings. In the end 99% of the impurities are filtered out. That smoke I saw coming out of the building? Only water vapour.

Still, energy-from-waste plants remain highly controversial. Many argue that although they do reduce CO2 emissions, they provide perverse incentive for governments to do nothing about the amount of waste generated by their societies. Additionally, such plants will always generate some pollution and the facilities can also be dangerous if there are accidents. Green groups in the UK have been particularly aggressive in opposing such plants, defeating plans for them in every council that has considered it.

Another interesting site we visited was a house outside of Amersfoort which generated its own energy. Apparently this has been increasingly done with new home construction in the Netherlands, as the government has started a feed-in program where homes that generate excess electricity can give it to the power grid and be paid for it. With this particular home, the solar panels and wind turbine on the roof generate more electricity than the house needs during the day, so that electricity is sold to the state and put into the wider grid. At night, when the sun is down, the house buys electricity from the grid, but it buys less electricity than it sells during the day so the homeowner actually makes a profit. The house also has many other energy-savings tricks including a special type of insulation made of Styrofoam (pictured left). But at the same time it looks like any other house, with a typical 1930's boxy Netherlands design (pictured above).

All in all it was an interesting trip. It was especially interesting talking to all the other journalists, especially the ones from Brussels. It actually made me excited for my move there in the Autumn. This weekend I'm in Zurich, Sunday is Father's Day in the US and UK so I thought I'd come here for it. I'm basically living at Heathrow Airport these days! After this I have a few straight weeks in the UK though. Well, at least 2 weeks. Hopefully we'll get some sunshine in London finally.


Carol said...

Sounds like a really interesting trip!

Annette said...

Nice little junket!