CITIES:

Copenhagen's low-carbon formula: Add wind turbines, subtract hamburgers

COPENHAGEN -- More windmills and electric cars. More bikes and parks. Fewer coal plants and beef patties. This is Copenhagen's recipe for becoming the world's first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.

The Danish capital moves into the world's spotlight starting Monday as it hosts the United Nations' two-week Climate Change Conference. Representatives from nearly 200 countries will try to negotiate a treaty to fight global warming while thousands of onlookers, demonstrators, members of business and environmental groups and journalists swirl around them, giving Denmark's capital a circus-like atmosphere.

By most measures, Copenhagen is already one of the globe's most environmentally friendly cities. For example, 57 percent of Copenhageners bike to work or school every day, and many others use the area's extensive public transit system. But Copenhagen aims to do much more. It wants to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 500,000 metric tons, or 20 percent, between 2005 and 2015 and again by 850,000 metric tons, or 43 percent, on its way to becoming carbon neutral in 2025.

All this will happen, according to planners, while the city's population will rise steadily, increasing by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2025. (The plan covers the Copenhagen municipality only, with approximately 500,000 inhabitants, not the greater Copenhagen area of 1.5 million people.)

"The main challenge is transferring our energy supply systems, moving from coal power plants mainly to wind power but also to solar and geothermal energy," said Klaus Bondam, mayor of the technical and environmental administration for Copenhagen. Bondam is one of several mayors serving under Copenhagen's Lord Mayor, Ritt Bjerregaard.

"That will reduce our CO2 emissions by 75 percent," he said. It's not just an altruistic plan -- city officials assert that becoming carbon neutral would sharpen Copenhagen's attraction to tourists, create more opportunities for Danish businesses in environmental technologies and attract more festivals and conferences to the city, even if that may mean more CO2 emissions from air travel.

The Danish capital, home to Maersk, the world's largest container shipper; Novo Nordisk, the world's largest diabetes care company; and Carlsberg, the world's fourth-largest brewer, has already cut carbon emissions by 20 percent over the last 10 years. More than 30 percent of its energy supply already comes from carbon-neutral sources today.

Cooking with biofuels and wood chips

A study by Danish engineering and consulting firm Ramboll said it was "possible and even realistic" that the city would reach its 2025 goal, especially if conventional forms of energy like oil and natural gas become more expensive during the next 15 years.

To get there, Copenhagen has mapped out 50 initiatives, including producing more renewable energy, making its transportation greener, erecting energy-efficient buildings and refurbishing old ones, building two new parks per year and getting its restaurants to serve less beef and more local fruit and vegetables.

As of 2005, 13 percent of Copenhagen's electricity came from wind, 9 percent from biofuels, 5 percent from burning waste, 8 percent from oil, 23 percent from natural gas and 42 percent from coal.

To increase the share of renewable energy in the mix, the city wants to convert one coal-fired power plant to burning only wood chips and another to at least 40 percent wood chips.

It will also build a new combined heat and power station based on renewable energy. This alone would bring the city nearly all the way to its interim 2015 goal, according to Ramboll. In addition, Copenhagen will erect as many wind turbines as necessary to cover the equivalent of the entire municipal government's electricity needs, increase geothermal energy production sixfold and modernize the district heating system to reduce heat loss from old pipes.

"I'm quite proud of the fact that we have a positive view on windmills here," Bondam said, referring to the lack of NIMBY, or not-in-my-back-yard, issues. "Most Copenhageners regard the offshore windmills as very natural, beautiful and a welcome part of the Copenhagen skyline. We also consider them an integral part of our historic traditions."

The city calculates it can save 375,000 metric tons of CO2 just by upgrading the energy supply. At the national level, the main limitation for increasing wind energy usage is the fact that wind power can't be readily stored and used to match demand. Copenhagen wants to fix that problem using a network of hydrogen and electric vehicles as well as its district heating system. Heat pumps that match the electricity production from the turbines could balance 800 megawatts of wind power generation, which the city calculates should be more than enough to make it CO2-neutral.

Storing renewable energy in homes and vehicles

"We have already a district heating system that covers 97 percent of Copenhagen households today," Bondam said. "In that sense, it's quite easy to connect the wind power to that. A lot of energy is lost today when the wind blows too much. We can store the surplus energy from wind in the heating system and in hydrogen and electric cars. We are working heavily on building the infrastructure for hydrogen and electric vehicles."

Copenhagen has bought six hydrogen passenger vehicles, two hydrogen pickups and 25 electric vehicles for some of its fire marshals, nurses and home care workers as a first step toward its long-term plan to have 85 percent of municipal vehicles run on hydrogen or battery power alone. All new passenger cars bought by the municipality starting in 2011 will be hydrogen- or battery-powered.

Eventually, switching the car fleet will cut the municipality's fuel bill in half at an estimated average price of about $28 per kilogram of hydrogen -- enough to drive 100 kilometers, or 62 miles. But in the meantime, its bill for buying the cars in the first place is hefty. The hydrogen cars bought so far cost about $150,000 each, even though they were exempt from Denmark's 180 percent tax for regular passenger cars.

"Our goal to change the car fleet in the city is quite a big challenge," Bondam said. "Cars are extremely expensive in Denmark, and so far, there has been only a limited tax exemption on electric cars, until 2012. We have to go ahead and be front-runners and try to slowly change the car and bus fleet from internal combustion engines to hydrogen and electric cars, and also work within the European Union to standardize solutions. From the car manufacturers we need to see a clear strategy for the commercialization of clean cars."

There are six hydrogen refueling stations in Scandinavia, two of them in Denmark. Nine more are planned in the region by 2015 to support a fleet of 100 buses, 500 cars and 500 specialty vehicles powered by hydrogen. Compared with other European countries, that effort comes somewhere in between Germany's goal for 1,000 hydrogen refueling stations by 2017 and the 2012 London Olympics plan to use 150 hydrogen cars, five hydrogen buses and 20 hydrogen taxis.

Pushing for still more bike commuters

At the same time, Copenhagen won't forget its network of bike lanes. The city will add new bike paths and bridges, as well as bike parking near public transportation stations. "We aim for 70 percent of Copenhageners to go to work by bike in 2015," Bondam said.

Other initiatives call for improved public transit to increase comfort and reliability and reduce waiting times, while at the same time cutting CO2 emissions from buses by 25 percent. The city wants to introduce congestion charges but needs permission from the national government. While electric and hydrogen vehicles will be able to park for free, conventional cars will see parking fees and restrictions rise.

The idea is to create incentives to bike and walk while introducing GPS technology to tell drivers where to park to minimize the amount of time spent cruising while searching for a parking spot. Energy use for street lighting will be cut in half by using efficient bulbs and LED technologies.

The city will be a big player in this because it owns about 5 percent of the floor space in Copenhagen, and buildings constructed for the municipality between now and 2025 will make up 15 percent of the city's real estate holdings. They will need to be built based on the toughest low-energy standards, while older buildings will be upgraded and made more efficient, saving the city up to $3 million per year in energy costs.

Future neighborhoods, such as the development planned on the grounds of the old Carlsberg brewery, will be carbon neutral, with green areas and easily accessible public transit. The city plan doesn't address the higher average cost of such developments and whether potential citizens will be willing to pay it to move there.

If the experience of its climate-friendly restaurant program is any guide, people will need to be convinced of long-term savings first. With a budget of about $400,000 per year and seven employees, the Klima+ program -- meaning Climate+ in English -- advises small businesses in collaboration with the city's Green Business Network on how to cut carbon emissions and save money at the same time.

Carbon-neutral beer and more local delicacies

Ninety-six restaurants have joined the program, with 55 of them offering a climate-friendly menu.

"It doesn't mean they have to be CO2 neutral or they can never serve beef again," said Birte Brorson, who manages the program for the Copenhagen municipality. "If Klima+ gets some of the restaurants moving in the right direction, we have succeeded."

Restaurants can reduce their carbon footprint by cutting down on beef and frozen or processed foods, as well as offering more local fish, fruit and vegetables that are in season, thus reducing the need for transportation, greenhouses and pesticides.

The first restaurant to join the program was BioMio, which opened this year in Copenhagen's hip meatpacking district. The owners wanted to put the carbon footprint of each dish on the menu but discovered that the 150 goods listed on official Danish carbon footprint lists did not cover all their ingredients.

Another restaurant that joined the program is Kanalen in the city harbor. "We wanted to start buying local produce, which is fresher and doesn't have to travel a long way," said Anders Houmann, the restaurant's owner. "Now we buy more from Zealand, Lolland and Scania, where, for example, we now get chanterelles [a variety of mushroom] that we used to get from Poland." Kanalen also replaced its old electric oven with a new one that uses so little power that the Danish utility DONG Energy thought it necessary to inspect the restaurant's electric meter to make sure it hadn't been tampered with.

Not every restaurant on the list seems fully committed to the exercise, though. Nørrebro Bryghus, a microbrewery and restaurant, launched what it calls the country's first CO2-neutral beer, but continues to sell two kinds of mineral water trucked in from Italy.