RD Editorial October 2018

Power fetish

When a major power grid failure hit Eastern Denmark and Southern Sweden on Sept. 23, 2003, leaving millions in the dark, a standby generator was fired up to provide electricity in Copenhagen, the Danish capital. This was unremarkable, except for the fact that the backup power source was a massive diesel unit that had been in service for 70 years.

This 1,400-ton engine – 80 feet long and 40 feet high – has a capacity of about 22,000 horsepower, or roughly 15 megawatts. Each of its eight pistons has a diameter of 33 inches. It was commissioned from the Burmeister & Wain company in 1933, and the H.C. Ørsted Power Plant was built around it. (Ørsted, a close friend of Hans Christian Andersen, was a noted post-Kantian philosopher and a physicist who made significant advances in our understanding of electromagnetism, which had lasting importance in the energy sector.)

The plant was never a primary power source; it was intended to provide extra juice for the city during periods of peak demand – in the morning, and after working hours. It served this purpose well because it could be deployed more quickly than steam turbines, which were the era’s primary source of electricity. Significantly, it could be started without electricity, thanks to a pair of compressed air tanks that were always ready to provide the necessary cranking power.

Though disconnected from the grid since 2004, the engine is still started up a couple times a month for demonstration purposes. It is the centrepiece of a museum known as DieselHouse, which is something of a shrine to diesel technology. The engine has a series of gangways to provide access to service decks at four levels – but since these are off-limits to visitors, there is an elevated observation platform along one side of the cavernous, sun-lit building, with tables and chairs where you can sip strong Danish coffee and gawk at this spectacle of industrial achievement. One is struck by the sheer size of this working antique, but also by the strange beauty of its design. The engine’s main control panel, in particular, is an elegant array of brass levers and valves and analog gauges. (It has an aesthetic quality that makes me think it ought to appear in a Wes Anderson movie – possibly featuring the Danish resistance fighters who used this power plant as a hiding place during Germany’s occupation of Copenhagen.)

The museum – distinctly oily-smelling, but thoughtfully curated – traces the roots of the industrial revolution to the development of steam power, including major contributions by the Scottish engineer James Watt – who introduced the concept of horsepower in the late 18th century, and who posthumously lent his name to the power unit we use today for light bulbs and photovoltaic solar panels.

Steam technology spread around the world rapidly, dramatically reducing our reliance on animal power, as well as wind and hydro power. Trains, ships, and factories proliferated. But scientists recognized that the process of transferring steam from a boiler into an engine involves significant energy losses; steam engines were inherently inefficient. In the 19th century, inventors in a number of countries developed internal combustion engines that ran on liquid fuel, offering significant improvements in efficiency. One of the key players was the German engineer Rudolph Diesel, who, in 1892, patented his design for an internal combustion engine that relied on heat from compression to ignite atomized oil.

While gasoline engines became standard for automobiles, diesels were widely adopted for heavy industrial applications – due to their efficiency and longevity over long periods of continuous operation, and their ability to run on a minimally refined fuel. Steam ships were phased out, because marine diesels offered more power in relation to their size and weight. Diesel fuel took up less space than coal, and it did not need to be handled; refueling was far faster, and there was no need for a stoker crew.


Burmeister & Wain (B&W) became a world leader in this transition to modern international shipping. Initially called Baumgarten & Burmeister when it was established in 1846 as a machine works, the company soon got into shipbuilding, and in 1871 added a larger shipyard on Refshaleøen, an island in Copenhagen’s harbour. In addition to steam engines, the foundry produced printing presses and various other machines.

In 1882, with dairy products playing a larger role in Danish agriculture, B&W began making hand-cranked centrifugal cream separators, which were sold to farmers. Manufacturing these precision devices required finer tolerances than previous product lines, so it resulted in B&W acquiring more advanced engineering expertise, facilitating the shift to producing diesel engines. Ivar Knudsen, the company’s technical director, travelled to Germany to meet with Rudolph Diesel, and in 1898 B&W acquired Danish patent rights on this technology.

Initially B&W built stationary diesel engines. In 1904, the first one was sold to a Copenhagen carriage factory, where it ran a dynamo to power lights and also provided direct power for machinery. (That very engine is on display at DieselHouse, and it is started up every Thursday at 2 p.m.) The next year, another one was installed at a water pumping station in the city.

In 1911 B&W launched its first diesel ship, the MS Selandia, which set the standard for this new mode of transport – with two 8-cylinder engines delivering a total of 2,500 horsepower, plus two 250-horsepower auxiliary engines. Her appearance was unique, because people were accustomed to seeing steam ships with a huge, central smoke funnel; diesel ships were billed as “smokeless.”

On her 1912 maiden voyage to Bangkok, carrying enough fuel for the return trip, the Selandia called at London. Newspaper photos show a youthful Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, coming aboard to admire the vessel. Britain was in the midst of a national coal miners’ strike at the time, and the prospect of an alternative shipping fuel was of great interest. Though Enlightenment values had finally eliminated the use of indentured labour and child workers in the mines of Western nations, the fight for fair wages raged on, and the union movement was a thorn in the side of industrialists and politicians.

In the 1930s, further developments in marine diesel technology were focused on designing engines to run on cruder, cheaper fuel. Economical diesel power allowed for refrigerated shipping, which gained popularity after the Second World War, when increasing prosperity in Europe created demand for fresh produce from the tropics. In this period, B&W had some 6,000 employees, and it was considered something of a workers’ paradise. As international trade continued to expand, the company thrived into the 1960s, but eventually – and ironically – globalization took a toll. There was growing competition from shipyards in Japan and other Asian countries with lower labour costs. In 1979 B&W was purchased by MAN (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg), the German heavy-industry giant, and in the 1980s production in Copenhagen was discontinued. (Refshaleøen, that island in the harbour, is one of the West’s many post-industrial sites now used as a cultural venue; this summer Ozzy Osbourne headlined the heavy metal festival that is held there annually.)

Container shipping has continued to expand, employing ever-larger vessels and proportionally fewer people – feeding our insatiable appetite for cheap imported goods. There are now thousands of these ships in service, most of them built in Korea or China – some of them 400 metres long, driven by diesel engines rated at 80 MW, which is more than 100,000 horsepower. The scalability of the technology has brought improvements in efficiency, but these gains have been outpaced by steady growth in international shipping, in terms of distance as well as tonnage. Today’s “smokeless” ships are producing a heck of a lot of atmospheric pollution, and a lot of the goods being transported ultimately end up as garbage. At this point, the whole enterprise looks like a failure of imagination.

I readily admit to having a fascination with certain aspects of our industrial heritage, and an admiration for the innovators who puzzled out better ways of building things. I have to remind myself that cool machines ­– the power and the speed and the noise – essentially appeal to my inner 14-year-old. In this sense, our society seems to be stuck in a protracted adolescence. The industrial mindset is no longer serving us well, but we cling to it. We crave more payload, more low-end torque. We venerate crackpot entrepreneurs who are obsessed with space tourism. Nova Scotia, meanwhile, has regressed into industrial nostalgia, with Cape Breton coal again being used to generate electricity.

We have had the age of sail, the age of steam, the age of oil. The 21st may well be the century of solar – but the necessary shift is not simply a matter of substituting one power source for another. Our use of energy and resources needs to be rethought in ways that are not merely technical. DL