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How do you recycle a bunker, part 5: with the community (the KEBAP project)

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On New Year’s eve I was invited to a tour of a most unique bunker project, the KEBAP. It’s an acronym for “energy and culture bunker” in German.
The tour was held for a group of environmentally-minded students from Minnesota. During their winter break, they were touring sustainability projects in Germany and Denmark – including KEBAP.

I walked over to Hotel Sternschanze in Ottensen where twenty or so jet-lagged students of environmental science, geography, engineering, or arts were awaiting a talk by KEBAP coordinator Heike Breitefeld. Also present were two profs from St-Thomas University in Minnesota, as well as Irene Peters of HafenCity University in Hamburg and her grad student Ansel Mueller, who is studying district heating. I figured if these students came all the way to Hamburg to see this project, it must be good and I should tag along. I wasn’t disappointed.

Heike (top left) presenting KEBAP to the student group

Heike (top left) presenting KEBAP to the student group

Heike has been involved in the environmental movement for a good long while. She first took part in the protests against the coal power plant at Moorburg. That fight was lost (though the proposal and the protests happened over a decade ago, the plant has just come on line recently); but then there was a proposal to bring steam from Moorburg for district heating, and the pipe would have gone right through her street, uprooting all the street trees. She went back to the trenches, mobilized people, organised protests, which included a tree sitting over a cold winter; eventually the courts found for them (urban trees matter!), and the pipe project was cancelled.

She spoke quietly, but her eyes had the fiery intensity of someone who has given herself to the struggle for environmental and social justice. She gave an impression of steely resolve, of someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I pity the bureaucrat who tries to dismiss her. She explained to us what KEBAP, a project based on an old WW2 bunker on Schomburgstraße in Altona, entails.

The bunker, a concrete structure the size of a large apartment block, is currently owned by the federal government. Until recently, it was classified as an active civilian protection structure; built by the Nazis, the structure was repurposed as a nuclear shelter during the fifties. The cold war may be long over, but the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. Eventually someone realized that something ought to be done with this bunker.

The bunker is located in a “special social area”, that is, a neighbourhood with social issues amid subsidized-housing towers. Because of that designation, the site has been preserved from real estate developers, but this special protection is likely to be lifted next year. Government policy is that excess land (and buildings) is to be sold to the highest bidder; the community has no chance of outbidding a private developer. But Heike and the KEBAP activists hope to gain approval for a special social function designation for their project, especially after their vision won a prestigious award. They want the city to be involved, to develop a sense of ownership in the project, so as to ensure, first its realisation, then its sustained support.

So what is the vision for this bunker? KEBAP’s idea is to split the bunker into two sections of equal size, one for energy, the other as a community and arts space. The importance of this project as a community-building focus was evident from the opening slide of Heike’s presentation. Issues of social and community justice are foremost for the activists; the energy part is meant to be revenue generating to support the arts side.

Geek that I am, though, it was the energy part that really got me. Inside the bunker would be housed a wood gasifier, a cogen plant – aka, CHP, for Combined Heat and (electrical) Power – and a large heat storage tank. Because the fuel is derived from wood, the process is considered climate-neutral. The bunker happens to be located next to a district heating pipeline, and the energy produced would add to the network. More important, though, is the thermal storage. Heating demand varies throughout the day, and a large energy storage makes it possible to realize considerable gains in efficiency. The large bunker in Wilhelmsburg has been converted into an energy facility, serving as a bit of a model for KEBAP. The performance of that bunker shows that, with storage, the same amount of fuel can heat twice as many homes as without. A lot of space is needed in order to house such a storage facility, but that is precisely what a bunker has in droves. Also, the structure is bomb-proof, by definition; so fuel storage, gasification, and combustion, stuff normally too risky for a residential neighbourhood, are safe when housed inside a bunker.

But what about connecting with the heat distribution network? Ironically, Vattenfall, the Swedish company that owns the network, is the same company that owns the Moorburg power plant which triggered this story. Despite their history of conflicts with the activists, they have been quite cooperative, helping with the project feasibility study. The company needs to be perceived as good corporate citizens. Heat distribution, as opposed to electricity, is poorly regulated, and the company would much rather come to a friendly understanding with the community rather than having the government interfere. Further, Hamburg recently voted (in a public referendum) in favour of returning the power facilities to the public sector, so the company will need a deft touch to navigate through this issue.

Going the bunker

Going the bunker

So the idea is to generate clean power and sell it to the grid, both heat and electricity; this would generate revenue to sustain the other half of the project: the community centre.

We got an insight into what that may look like as we visited the site. There is still no approval for building anything in the bunker, but that hasn’t stopped the activists from building a lean-to shed against the bunker, as well as a community garden. On top of the shed are a solar collector for electric power, beehives, and a rain water collection cistern for the community garden.

The shed, which includes a small kitchen, was largely built by members of the community. This is a great source of pride for the activists, as it shows not only that the community is solidly behind the project, but also how important it is to have a venue where local people can apply their talents – and wood working is certainly not something that can be done in the cramped apartments of the neighbourhood. As it is, the brick oven in the shed’s kitchen is used a few times a months for communal break making parties.

The project has not been without detractors. Hamburg’s main paper (Hamburger Abendblatt) ran a snarky editorial in favour of an alternative project. Instead of an energy centre, the bunker would have housed community space and lofts for artists, the whole being paid by capping the bunker with luxury condos. The editorial claimed that this alternative would have been simpler and easier, and accused the local party of playing politics in support of a politically-correct, utopian green project. Maybe…but KEBAP has something else in its favour: the support of the community. Locals don’t like projects imposed from the top.

The berliners have arrived!

The berliners have arrived!

Light was fading, and the visitors congregated in a meeting room to eat a few Berliners, the doughnuts traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve. The students kept peppering Heike with questions. I had to leave and catch the train to get to my own Sylvester celebrations, but I left with a kind of warm glow.

It is always fun to witness a dialog between idealistic students and seasoned activists, but that wasn’t quite why it felt special. Then it hit me: it’s because these activists are positive. Environmentalists are often the “no” people, the ones opposed to “any project, anywhere”. But here are people devoting their time and energy for something positive, for a project that creates better things: an energy efficient system, better for the climate; a cultural venue, better for the community; and a real grassroots voice, better for social justice. Within a realistic budget, the third pillar of sustainability. You’d have to be pretty cynical not be impressed.

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Written by enviropaul

January 17, 2016 at 6:53 pm

One Response

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  1. […] I met with professor Irene Peters, a specialist in the geography and efficiency of urban systems.  Her research covers such topics as the impact of demographics on heat demand for district heating or decentralized wastewater systems, really cool stuff for anyone interested in making cities greener, more livable, and more efficient.  (It is thanks to her that I learned about and visited the KEBAP energy project that I described in an earlier post.) […]


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