Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

ProjectZero: Creating Sustainable Cities

Sustainble Cities

by Zhong Xingfei
December 2013

Denmark boasts forward-thinking, top-down and bottom-up energy policies. At the national level, a strong political consensus has produced an energy plan that, by 2020, will double, to 50%, the share of the nation's electricity coming from wind, and commits the country to become fossil fuel-free by 2050.

At the local level, some of the most vigorous initiatives to cut carbon have been launched by municipalities. Two of the best-known cases are the clean energy transitions underway on the islands of Samsø and Ærø, but there are many other outstanding examples. One of them is ProjectZero, which is based in Sønderborg, a municipality of 77,000 inhabitants, located near the border with Germany.

ProjectZero is a local company, currently managed by five people. Founded in 2007, its vision is to convert Sønderborg to a zero-carbon community by 2029. Focusing on implementing new energy efficiency solutions coupled with a complementary mix of clean electricity and fuels sourced from local resources, it also aspires to create new green jobs and a talented generation of young people.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), recently invited ProjectZero's managing director, Peter Rathje, to share information and perspectives on eco-city development at a meeting at the UNIDO headquarters in Vienna. UNIDO's eco-city programme was established by the organization's Environmental Management Branch in 2008. The programme focuses on promoting the exchange of experiences through the organization of international fora and the establishment of networks among cities, and on demonstrating how an eco-city can develop in practice.

Addressing the meeting at UNIDO, Rathje said, "Sønderborg is well on the way to achieve its zero-carbon master plan. During the first five years, ProjectZero has helped the community achieve 16.2% CO2 reduction and created 800 green jobs in the areas of construction industry, district heating and energy consulting. And we hope that our practice can be copied and pasted elsewhere."

A holistic approach

ProjectZero was established as a public-private partnership with contributions from the utility company, Southern Energy; the Danish national energy company, DONG Energy; the Bitten and Mads Clausen Fund (Danfoss); the Nordea Fund; and Sønderborg Municipality,

The management of ProjectZero believes that to achieve a zero-carbon Sønderborg before the end of 2029, it is very important that all stakeholders accountable for carbon emissions are motivated to engage in strong participation. Therefore, in Rathje's words, the company has adopted "a holistic approach that is bottom-up." Rathje continued, "It's not just top-down about planning and coming up with businesses and new technology to drive this forward. It's also very much about participation, about learning and the empowerment of the citizens and local companies."

Over the past three years, ProjectZero has organized a wide range of events for citizens, as well as people working professionally with energy issues. As houses and people account for approximately 45% of all carbon emissions, the company pays particular attention to the importance of citizen participation. To engage households in the effort to slash energy use, in late 2008, ProjectZero launched the ZEROfamily programme which involved 115 families, around 500 participants in total. The participating families learned about changing their daily habits in order to save energy. This activity created awareness of actual energy consumption and motivated the family to find new ways to reduce energy use. At the end of a year-long education and outreach campaign, the households on average reduced energy consumption by 25% and water use by 45%.

Based on the best practice learned from the ZEROfamily programme, ProjectZero followed up with the energy-efficient renovation of the area's 18,600 private housing units. The average age of houses in the area is 65 years and the ZEROhome programme is carrying out energy retrofits by improving installations, modes of energy supply and appliances. The ongoing initiatives are expected to create 300-500 new green jobs in the construction sector over the next 3-5 years.

The company is also promoting a ZEROconstruction programme, in which all new buildings in the area produce their own energy and in this way will be self-sufficient in terms of both electricity and heat by 2029. All public buildings are also expected to be built with a better energy efficiency standard than required by the current Danish building code. The conversion is taking place through close cooperation between ProjectZero, the Sønderborg Municipality and the areas' district heating companies. 'Green district heating', based on renewable sources like geothermal heat, solar heat, biomass and wind, is already on the way to replace traditional fossil fuel-based heating.

ProjectZero's ZEROcompany programme convinced Linak, a Sønderborg-based company, which is a global producer of electric linear actuator systems and a large local employer, to become a 100% green company, based on energy efficiency, green district heating and use of their own wind-turbine.

"In the first 18 months, Linak reduced their energy consumption for both heating and power by more than 17% and their CO2 emissions by more than 25%. Now it is continuing to initiate projects and invest in new renewable energy sources in order to eliminate remaining CO2-emissions," said Peter Rathje at the meeting with UNIDO.

Synergies with UNIDO

Ludovic Bernaudat is a UNIDO Industrial Development Officer who administers the organization's eco-city programme. During the meeting, he remarked that ProjectZero's approach has much in common with that of UNIDO. "Like ProjectZero, we have found that to achieve eco-city status, the three main actors, which are the municipal government, the private sector and the public, need to collaborate. The municipalities need to have a vision and a strategy to achieve their goals. The private sector needs to be involved in introducing existing solutions and developing new, cleaner and more efficient ones. And finally, the public needs to be informed and convinced that the changes are for the better."

Diego Masera, who runs UNIDO's Renewable Energy Unit, shared this appreciation of the ProjectZero initiatives. "Renewable energies play a central role in inclusive and sustainable industrial development because they allow for carbon-neutral, sustainable generation and use of energy. ProjectZero represents a similar approach to UNIDO's renewable energy strategy, whereby local resources (natural, human and financial) are the basis for the planning of a sustainable future. By reducing the dependency on imported fossil fuels, local industries can generate local employment and trigger long-term social, environmental and economic benefits."

Education is vital

Can the rest of the world learn from Sønderborg's ProjectZero? Peter Rathje is confident. "If people know what we are doing in Sønderborg, they will follow us. But the difficulty is to get them informed and to change society's mind-set."

Asked what he thinks is the best instrument to promote ProjectZero's concept and to change society's mind-set, Rathje responded without the slightest hesitation, "Education. New, clever and creative thinking will be required to combat the climate challenge. Therefore, a core aspect of ProjectZero is providing education at all levels – from kindergarten to the PhD."

During 2009 and 2010, science teachers in the municipality´s 21 schools were introduced to green science and new learning methods. This initiative was supplemented by high-school students, who became science coaches for younger schoolchildren and, in 2010, new science and nature concepts were successfully tested in the kindergartens. Through this project, children in kindergartens and schools gained the inspiration and the knowledge so that they could, in turn, "school" their parents.  

A role model for the international community

Since the outset, ProjectZero's innovative approach has attracted wide international attention. It was awarded the Sustainable Energy Europe Community Award 2010, and in 2012 ProjectZero joined the Clinton Foundation's Climate Positive Development Programme. Through partnerships and by sharing green solutions, ProjectZero aims not only to establish a leading position for Denmark in CO2-neutral growth and sustainable cities, but also to serve as a role model for the rest of the world.

Rathje emphasized that "challenging global climate change requires new ways of cooperation at the local level between politicians, citizens, businesses, teachers and universities, and at the national level between cities and government. Globally, the cities and cooperation between them plays an important role in exchanging best practices."

The company is developing cooperation around world. For instance, strong ties have been established with Chinese low-carbon city development projects, and ProjectZero is rapidly becoming an energy and climate role model in China. WWF, the international non-governmental organization working on issues regarding the conservation, research and restoration of the environment, has helped ProjectZero to establish strong cooperation with the city of Baoding, a key centre for China's expanding clean-tech industries that has been nicknamed, 'Green Electric Valley'. The Chinese government has nominated Baoding as China's first base for the new energy industry. In 2012, Rathje participated in the Eco-Forum Global conference held in Guiyang, China, where he shared ProjectZero's experiences. Currently, the company is also working closely with local government and companies in the Hainan province of China to promote energy saving and emissions reductions.

Peter Rathje is pleased with ProjectZero's 'role model' impact across the globe. "Let the best practice examples spread like ripples in the water. Let ProjectZero's practice in Sønderborg become scalable green solutions and programmes...Our master plan is to create sustainable cities around the world, because this will make us, humankind, independent of fossil fuels, while creating thousands of new green jobs in industry, trades and services."

See also:

Economic snap-shot of Denmark, and interview with Ida Auken, Denmark's Minister of the Environment.

State of Green, the official green brand for Danish leadership of the transition to a green growth economy.

Denmark's collaborative culture makes it a breeding ground for sustainability.

Photo Credit: Sustainable Cities/shutterstock