Making a Real "Green City"

Real Industrial EcosystemNews of green trends emerging in cities around the world is becoming commonplace to the point that visions of a “green city” are beginning to enter the minds of the populace, appearing in flashy renderings or news articles. The term incites thoughts of 100% solar power or hundreds of wind turbines on buildings or merely just bounding foliage on every corner. I found a prime example in a New York Times article speaking of plans for a Florida city to be run completely by PVs. When environmental critics come along and call such talk “fantasy,” they may not be mistaken because those technological tactics are not the basis for what will make our cities truly sustainable.

The true conversion to a sustainable economy is to rethink how we organize our cities and how their components can work together to achieve new levels of efficiency and production as part of a reflexively beneficial network. An ecology. If we look hard enough we can find instances of this mentality that have actually been successfully attempted. A prime example is i the city of Kalundborg, Denmark where industry and residents work as part of a functioning ecosystem rather than individual entities in close proximity. The names given to describe the creation are numerous: Industrial Symbiosis, Environmental Industry Ecology, Industrial Ecosystem—but they all spell progress.

The City of Kalundboug

With over 20,000 residents, the coastal city boasted a number of different industries all providing a net export of products. For a capitalistic, free market system this could be business as usual. But the people of Kalundborg came to realize nature’s most powerful lesson and the prime focus of Intercon’s dialogue: the interconnections between components of society are the path to achieving a stasis that is truly sustainable. The city and its industries set off to find how they could collectively function better and their result was a harmonized ecology that could not be achieved without their collective participation.

Kalundborg’s ecosystem begins with four main components. The Asnaes Power Station is Denmark’s largest coal-fired power plant producing up to 1,500 MW of energy. The StatOil refinery, also Denmark’s largest, produces up to 3.2 million tons/year of crude oil as of 1995. The Gyproc Plasterboard plant makes gypsum wall board (blueboard or sheetrock) while Novo Nordisk, an international pharmaceutical company, has one of their largest plants in the Kalundborg. Outside of these seemingly unrelated industries, we have the natural environment and the city itself.

Industrial Ecology

Building an Ecosystem

The system started with the Asnaes power plant which began to use excess heat to create steam that could be sold to the other facilities and 3,500 homes to replace more expensive oil heating systems. Looking at its own waste stream, the plant harvested Sulfur Dioxide which when mixed with Calcium Carbonate, makes Calcium Sulfate–or Gypsum.  This new product helped supplement the stream of raw material into Gyproc Plasterboard.

Instead of using freshwater lakes for cooling needs, the power station began using salt water from the ocean and then transferred that heated water to local fish farms who, in turn, lowered their own secondary heating needs. Lastly, Asnaes removed fly ash from its smoke stacks and sold it for use in cement production and road paving (a key component to recycled content in concrete structures.)

StatOil found its own methods of integrating into its surrounding network. Instead of flaring off their excess gas it was utilized and harvested as power that was sold to Gyproc and back to Asnaes. The refinery also began to treat its waste water before discharging it back to the environment while producing a supply of organic sludge. Similarly, Novo’s use of ingredients like insulin and industrial enzymes created by products of organic material. Both of these components was combined with waste from the fish farms to create a rich fertilizer base that can be sold to surrounding farming regions to complete a transition from hard industries like oil and coal to aiding organic farming.

Through the course of reorganization and contemplating new methods for exchange, this city was able to reduce emissions, reduce fossil fuel usage, reduce its waste stream, increase efficiency and create new product streams that produced revenue. Research firm Indigo Development refers to this system as an example of “Industrial Symbiosis” and estimates that the $60 million in total investments produced $120 million in cost-savings and new revenue streams. This happened with no PVs, no turbines, no CFLs and no hybrid cars. Any common consumer level savings in energy or materials would be above and beyond this infrastructural intiative. The clear resemblance to a natural, balanced system is unsurprising.

Now it is true that the businesses in question are not hallmarks of sustainability, but that only speaks to the promise of the process. I am not endorsing the production of more coal and oil facilities, but if this much can be accomplished with coal plants and oil refineries think of what we could do with a city of solar panel makers, vertical farms, construction salvage depots and biomass plants. While noting the effort of municipalities and developers utilizing green systems is worthwhile, we must continue to underscore the vast amount of potential from breaking the borders of traditional business planning and urban organization.

As the vast population of people who are not professional experts in sustainability become educated on the possibilities, it is imperative that we do not cloud vision to truly sustainable goals by gimmicks and half-hearted benchmarks that stand out merely because they are above the historical baseline effort (nominally zero). Whether or not these so-called green cities get built is less of an issue as long as people know they are a long way from what we can (and should) produce.