Novo cutting emissions while building capacity at massive Denmark plant

Novo's Kalundborg insulin-producing plant--Courtesy of Novo

About an hour and a half west of Copenhagen is a little coastal town, Kalundborg, with 16,000 inhabitants, a famous five-steepled church and a castle dating back to at least the 14th century. It also happens to be the home of the plant that produces half of the world's insulin, the key component to most diabetes treatments.

When King Valdemar IV built the Kalundborg castle, he could never imagine a building as big as Novo Nordisk's ($NVO) Kalundborg API facility, much less the high-tech equipment inside. He'd understand, however, the concept of visitors armoring up, in this case with white coveralls and blue booties.

Novo Nordisk uses genetically modified yeast to produce its insulin, so it's no surprise that the first few chambers of the plant smell a bit like, well, yeast. But once the yeast has done its work, the job is removing it from the insulin it has made, and purifying and drying the insulin to a dry, crystalline powder--ironically, for a drug designed to control blood glucose, a powder that resembles table sugar.

The numbers are staggering. Enough raw insulin to treat up to 15 million people a year, 4 cubic meters drawn every hour from a host of fermentation tanks--and the cabling to power it and run it all amounting to 550 km, about the distance from Copenhagen to Oslo, Norway. The Kalundborg site itself, which houses several more production facilities, is the size of 156 football fields, about 1 million square meters. "We could play a lot of football here," jokes Jan Hoff, Novo's SVP who heads the Kalundborg production site. "If we didn't have the factories."

But the numbers Hoff wants to focus on are carbon emissions, waste production, and water and energy use. That's because his mandate for Kalundborg is to produce more insulin, Victoza, Tresiba, and semaglutide, Novo's experimental long-acting GLP-1 drug--with less carbon, waste, etc. 

Novo Nordisk publicly promised years ago to cut its carbon emissions by 10% from 2004 to 2014, after working with the World Wildlife Fund to come up with a goal. Because production facilities consume lots of resources--and the Kalundborg API facility makes lots of Novo Nordisk products--lots of that burden falls on Hoff.

So, Novo struck up a partnership with DONG Energy on an energy-saving plan, and promised to funnel its eventual cost savings into building a wind farm that would, in time, provide all of the electricity used by the company's sites in Denmark. It hit that goal in 2010, Hoff says.

Meanwhile, in Kalundborg, Novo has worked with its neighbors to use each other's by-products, and invested in equipment to treat and recycle wastewater. The Kalundborg API plant reuses two-thirds of the alcohol employed as a solvent during production, and the facility's spent yeast is converted into fertilizer.

"We have been fairly successful in decoupling our sales and our environmental footprint," Hoff says.

This is what he means by "fairly successful"--the plant has increased production three and a half times since 2001, and has managed to cut CO2 emissions to pre-2001 levels. Waste output is now below 2001 levels, too. Water and energy use isn't growing nearly as fast as sales, but it's not yet below the 2001 figure, he says. "So you see it has to be a constant focus," Hoff says.

Hoff says Novo is taking the show on the road to persuade other companies to do the same. Still, the focus has to be on the production-growth side of the equation, too, if Novo wants sales to grow. Given the provenance of the Kalundborg site's visitors earlier this month--Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Russia, India and so on--and the fast-growing numbers of diabetes cases in emerging markets, that will be a lot of insulin to distribute all around the world. So it's a good thing they're not playing football in Kalundborg.