The Copenhill Crisis: A Dark Side of Municipal Planning for Clean Energy Futures

Ulrik Kohl, John Andersen

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference abstract for conferenceResearchpeer-review


Across Europe, social movements and cities join efforts to reclaim public energy services at local level. 300 recent cases of remunicipalisations in the energy sector have been documented by Kishimoto and Petitjean (2017). Regaining municipal ownership of infrastructure is claimed as an important strategy for clean energy transformation and energy democracy. Denmark’s district heating sector provides an interesting context as the vast majority of its companies are organized as non-profits, and owned by municipalities (60%) or cooperatives (36%) (Energitilsynet, 2016).Obviously, specific rationalities in municipal ownership might affect the outcome of clean energy transitions. What are these rationalities, and how can we observe and describe their influence on the making of sustainable energy infrastructure, such as power plants?I investigate how the making of a power plant sheds light on urban power relations and the current socio-economic conjuncture through a case study of intense power struggle during the planning of Copenhagen’s waste-to-energy plant “Copenhill”. The plant’s iconic design includes a ski slope on the rooftop and a chimney puffing smoke-rings to increase public climate awareness. Local authorities and international media have claimed it to be the greenest plant of its kind in the world.Following Flyvbjerg’s (1998) critical approach to hidden power mechanisms in planning, I explore beliefs and behaviours by a group of local decision-makers by using informal corridor talk from Copenhagen’s City Hall and other locations of power. Combined with analysis of internal documents and interviews, this allows me to track conflicting urban visions and rationalities that lead to a crisis in the city’s energy planning. Eventually, key protagonists have their careers destroyed or even end up in jail. Paradoxically, the crisis is resolved by building an over-capacity plant, partly relying on imported waste from the European periphery. The plant contributes to increasing carbon emissions, but is also instrumental in green city branding of Copenhagen, with ambitions to become the first carbon-neutral capital in the world by 2025.The case study gives insight in roles and significance of local politicians and their complex interactions with other powerful figures at local and national level. The case points to a need for restoring a public ethos and ensuring accountability in governing climate change. Awareness of such deficiencies may help answer the question of how to combine clean energy transformation with a revitalization of democracy. References:Energitilsynet (2016) Fjernvarmestatistik [Danish Utility Regulator: District Heating Statistics, 2016]Flyvbjerg, B. (1998). Rationality and power: Democracy in practice. University of Chicago Press.Kishimoto, S. & Petitjean, O. (Eds.) (2017). Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2021
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 2021
EventEnergy Futures - Emerging Pathways in an Uncertain World! (Online) - Berlin Social Science Center (Online), Berlin, Denmark
Duration: 22 Feb 202126 Feb 2021


ConferenceEnergy Futures - Emerging Pathways in an Uncertain World! (Online)
LocationBerlin Social Science Center (Online)
OtherPostponed from May 2020 to February 2021.<br/>The future of energy is highly uncertain. Under the looming threat of climate change, there is increasing pressure to transform the ways in which energy is generated, distributed, traded and consumed in order to achieve more sustainable futures. Yet the conditions of these transformations are constantly changing. While the Fridays for Future movement has shown increasing support for environmental transformations, the political atmosphere under which energy transitions are being implemented has changed.<br/><br/>Large sections of society are openly contesting the prospect of a complete energy turn-around, especially in rural areas or former coal-mining regions. Political regulation is in constant flux due to the fear of losing competitive advantages, forfeiting economic prosperity and losing votes. Political support and leadership for clean energy transitions is waning.<br/><br/>At the same time, energy start-ups are testing and expanding their innovative business models. There is increasing belief in the possibility and economic feasibility of decentralizing energy management through smart applications in homes and neighborhoods. Incumbent energy industries are increasingly partnering with small energy entrepreneurs and expanding their expertise in the digital high-tech sphere. Home owners and increasingly also renters are benefitting from renewable energy technologies and building their own capacities in a formerly unknown area.<br/><br/>In short, the future pathways of renewable energy transitions are being imagined and implemented in very different and in part contradictory ways. This conference therefore asks:<br/><br/>What can we expect of energy futures?<br/><br/>For more information on how we seek to discuss these topics, please take a look at our conference sessions by clicking here.
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  • dark planning
  • Energy planning
  • Copenhill

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