The Role of Architects

While the design of WTE plants may seem to be the job of engineers and design/build contractors, architects can and do play a role. The profession is being tapped more and more for these facilities in Europe, where they are often built in plain view of people’s homes and offices. Grimshaw is currently working on a WTE project near Ipswich in Suffolk County, England, for waste-management company Sita UK. The facility will process more than 269,000 tons of waste per year, generating electricity for the equivalent of 30,000 homes.

“We think that energy projects need to have the same sort of rigor of architectural treatment as any other building,” says Kirsten Lees, Grimshaw’s partner in charge of the project. “Think of the great power plants of the industrial revolution.”

Grimshaw worked with Sita not only on the building envelope, but also on the arrangement of the mechanical components in order to arrive at a massing that would minimally impact the surrounding Suffolk countryside. “We spent a long time understanding the process and splitting up the components, understanding what needs to go where, what can be separated, [and] what can be reconfigured, so we understood how the overall form and mass could be manipulated to give it good looks,” Lees says.

Grimshaw used the existing topography and vegetation of the plant’s brownfield site to screen the facility and minimize its visual impact on the landscape. However, the complex also features a visitor center where the public can come to get an education on the workings of WTE technology. With this in mind, the architects clad much of the building in a transparent skin that allows views in to the boiler and flue hall. Twisting horizontal louvers on the exterior capture daylight and ethylene tetrafluoreothylene (ETFE) skylights allow light into the interior, reducing the need for artificial lighting during the day and improving views into the space.

While Sita’s Ipswich project establishes a quiet relationship with its neighborhood, another WTE plant under construction in Roskilde, Denmark, takes an extroverted approach. Designed by Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat and developed by Danish energy supplier Kara/Noveren, the Roskilde Incineration Line’s exterior makes a bold statement by referencing both religious and industrial architecture.

“It is a contemporary cathedral,” van Egeraat says. “Close to the ground we shaped the building to reflect the angular factory roofs of the immediate surroundings. We then let the building culminate in a 100-meter-tall [328-foot-tall] spire, which is an articulation of a fascinating and sustainable process in creating energy.”

As with Grimshaw’s building, van Egeraat created transparency to give passersby a glimpse of the facility’s inner workings, here in the form of laser-cut circular openings that perforate the umber-colored aluminum façade. At night, the façade is lit with embedded fixtures, which provide glowing evidence of the electricity created within. In the animated lighting scheme, a “spark” grows into a blazing “flame” eating up the entire volume. Once it reaches its peak, the light falls again, descending back to a metaphoric heap of glowing embers.

The Roskilde plant may make a big impression on the skyline, but another WTE project going up in Copenhagen takes matters a step further by not only giving the public a glimpse inside, but inviting them to scale the building. Designed by Danish architectural firm BIG, the Amagerforbraending plant not only includes the latest in WTE technology, but its roof is an actual ski slope topped with recycled synthetic granular “snow.”

“Most of the recently built power plants are merely functional boxes, wrapped in expensive gift paper,” says BIG founder and principal Bjarke Ingels. “The main purpose of the façade is often to hide the fact that factories are having a serious image and branding problem. We wanted to add functionality,” he says.

The ski slope will be competitive with any of the natural runs close to Denmark with a 328-foot-drop and more than a mile of paths. Even the building itself will look like a mountain, its envelope wrapped in a green screen of planters. Visitors journey to the top via an elevator that rises along the plant’s smokestack, providing glimpses into the workings of the facility. The smokestack itself is modified to puff smoke rings 30 meters (98 feet) in diameter whenever one ton of carbon dioxide is released, giving Danes an easy-to-understand measuring stick of the facility’s emissions and imbuing the whole business of incinerating garbage to make electricity with a cozy, down-home appeal.

Could It Happen Here?

While NIMBYism and environmentalist opposition have played significant roles in halting the spread of WTE here in the U.S., the main reason that it hasn’t taken a stronger footing is economic. Building a WTE facility incurs a huge up-front cost, whereas dumping garbage in a landfill is comparatively quite cheap. But that is changing.

“There is a growing interest in the U.S.,” says Ted Michaels, president of the Energy Recovery Council, a national trade organization representing the WTE industry and communities that own WTE facilities. “We built a lot of facilities in the ’80s and early ’90s. In the mid ’90s the economics became hard for us in the sense that landfills are pretty cheap. We were having trouble competing with them.” In the mid-2000s, electricity prices started to rise, as did revenues from metal recovery. And more money began to become available through renewable-energy credits. (Currently, 26 states—plus D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands—classify waste that is burned for energy as a renewable fuel, in many cases eligible for subsidies.) But the most important price increase, perhaps, was seen in the cost of landfills. “As the old landfills close, the new ones get further away, and as diesel fuel gets more expensive, it gets more economically viable to do WTE,” Michaels says.

In Europe, the technology has flourished through strong support from governments that penalize landfills and subsidize WTE. They have had good reason to take those measures, considering their lack of empty land and need for affordable energy sources. It is hard to imagine a tax being imposed on landfills here in the U.S. anytime soon, and conventional sources of power generation (coal and natural gas) remain relatively plentiful. But there are localities in the nation where WTE would seem to make good sense; namely New York City, which pays top dollar to ship most of its garbage to landfills in Virginia and has been known to suffer rolling blackouts during peak summer electricity usage. But in spite of the Big Apple’s embrace of renewable energy and other sustainability measures, its 2030 initiative, PlaNYC, shies away from proposing conventional WTE, though it does include plans for pilot programs to explore other anaerobic and thermal processing options.

While a proposal for a WTE incineration plant would create a hailstorm of public opposition, it seems that what the technology really needs to get a leg up is the backing of an influential green crusading politician. “People should realize that the U.S. is lagging behind in implementation of this technology,” says Rob Van Haaren, a planning specialist at WTERT. “I think the reason why that is happening is pretty clear. The word about how this technology has improved over the last 15 years has not been spread through the decision makers. They’ve taken up the cause of solar and wind energy, yes, but not waste to energy,” he says.