This Power Plant Can Turn A Third Of Shenzhen’s Trash Into Energy Every Day

A group of Danish architects is designing the largest waste-to-energy plant ever built.

In December, dozens of people were killed in Shenzhen when a landslide of refuse and construction waste from the Hongao Construction Waste Dump collapsed. Shenzhen, a city that has grown faster and bigger than perhaps any other city on Earth over the past three decades, is still struggling to come to terms with the sheer scale of its expansion. Meanwhile, many cities including Shenzhen are encouraging the development of “waste-to-energy” plants, where trash is incinerated to generate power for cities.


Shenzhen is now planning the largest such power plant in the world–and this week, chose a design from two Danish architecture firms, Schmidt Hammer Lassen and Gottlieb Paludan following a design competition. Power plants–especially ones that burn garbage–aren’t the most naturally elegant building form, but the Danish team has designed a unlikely and unusual building.

It’s a massive disc, almost a mile in circumference, covered in a sprawling roof of photovoltaics–totaling almost half a million square feet. Though a circular plan would seem to run contrary to the logic of the industrial sorting and firing infrastructure inside, the design team insists it’s actually based on rational analysis of the building: “By proposing a clear circular form the footprint of the plant is minimized and the excavation work required to build on the site is equally reduced.”

It looks very unlike the gritty, practical buildings that house most incineration plants around the world–it even has a pedestrian path along the roof. The whole idea of a public competition for a power plant is unusual, too. In fact, Waste Management World tried to gain access to dozens of similar plants as part of a study a few years ago, and was turned away by most of them “because most of the plants are run with a much higher coal co-firing content than officially admitted.”

Still, there are clean plants, and the whole idea behind this new project is to show one to the public: “The plant is intended to showcase the Waste-to-Energy production as an important technical process that is geared to deal with the issues of growing waste, as well as the issue of finding more environmentally friendly ways of generating electricity,” the architects say. “At the same time visitors become informed on the challenge of the growing amounts of waste we produce every day and are also educated on initiatives on how to reduce their own amount of daily waste.”

Though there are many different sub-categories of waste-to-energy plants, most of them use trash as a way to generate electricity, burning it as you would coal in a traditional power plant. There’s been quite a bit of debate about whether the process is truly “green,” but it’s been adopted by many countries as the most efficient and clean near-future option for dealing with trash and power generation in urban areas. The practice of commissioning architects to make these plants–often in or nearby cities–a little less hideous isn’t new, either: Bjarke Ingels famously proposed putting a ski run on top of one in Denmark in 2011.

In Shenzhen’s case, the power plant will have an enormous impact: the architects say the building will be capable of burning a full third of the city’s trash every day.


All images courtesy of Schmidt Hammer Lassen.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.