If a heavy reliance on fossil fuels makes a country a climate ogre, then Denmark – with its thousands of wind turbines sprinkled on the coastlines and at sea – is living a happy fairy tale.
Viewed from the United States or Asia, Denmark is an environmental role model. The country is “what a global warming solution looks like,” wrote Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a letter to the group last autumn. About one-fifth of the country’s electricity comes from wind, which wind experts say is the highest proportion of any country.
But a closer look shows that Denmark is a far cry from a clean-energy paradise.
The building of wind turbines has virtually ground to a halt since subsidies were cut back. Meanwhile, compared with others in the European Union, Danes remain above-average emitters of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. For all its wind turbines, a large proportion of the rest of Denmark’s power is generated by plants that burn imported coal.
“We are losing ground,” said Anne Grete Holmsgaard, the energy spokeswoman for the opposition Socialist People’s Party in Denmark. “It’s terrible, actually, that we’re not that green as we should be.”
The Danish experience shows how difficult it can be for countries grown rich on fossil fuels to switch to renewable energy sources like wind power. Among the hurdles are fluctuating political priorities, the high cost of putting new turbines offshore, concern about public acceptance of large wind turbines and the volatility of the wind itself.
But countries like Denmark are far ahead of the United States and others in overall use of green electricity, mostly because of government support.
“Europe has really led the way,” said Alex Klein, a senior analyst with Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm with offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Barcelona. “Very progressive policies by the Danes and Germany means the wind industry was able to evolve and build up scale.”
Klein said that Europeans generate about 75 gigawatts, or 10 percent, of their electricity from wind, small hydropower, biomass, solar and geothermal sources. Americans generate about half that amount from renewable sources, or about 3 percent of their overall consumption, he said. In wind power alone, Klein noted, the European Union nations generate about four times more than the United States.
Some parts of western Denmark derive 100 percent of their peak needs from wind if the breeze is up. Germany and Spain generate more power in absolute terms, but in those countries wind still accounts for a far smaller proportion of the electricity generated. The average for all 27 European Union countries is 3 percent.
But the Germans and the Spanish are catching up as Denmark slows down. Of the thousands of megawatts of wind power added last year around the world, only 8 megawatts were installed in Denmark, said Preben Maegaard, the executive director of the Nordic Folkecenter for Renewable Energy, a nonprofit group.
If higher subsidies had been maintained, he said, Denmark could now be generating close to one-third – rather than one-fifth – of its electricity from windmills.
Steffen Nielsen, a supply expert at the Danish Energy Authority, said that reducing the subsidies had been necessary because some turbine operators were overcompensated under the previous system.
Since the changes, which began in 1999 and were mainly carried out after 2001 by the center-right government, Denmark has been pressured to do more to meet its environmental commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.
In January, in a move that opposition politicians described as a U-turn, the government announced plans to double the amount of renewable energy used in Denmark by 2025, with much of that likely to come from wind.
Nielsen and other energy officials said that to meet those goals, Danish politicians still must negotiate how high to set rates for some wind operators and how much money to allocate for research and development.
Besides political hiccups, there have been technical setbacks, as Danish wind operators, hoping to bypass local objections and take advantage of stronger, steadier air currents, have tried to build giant turbines at sea. In one case, in 2004, turbines at Horns Reef, some 10 miles off the Danish coast, broke down, their critical equipment damaged by storms and salt water.
Vestas, a Danish manufacturer, fixed the problem by replacing the equipment at a cost of â‚¬38 million, or $50 million. But Peter Kruse, the head of investor relations for Vestas, warned that the lesson from Horns Reef was that wind farms at sea would remain far more expensive than those on land.
“Offshore wind farms don’t destroy your landscape,” Kruse said, but the added installation and maintenance costs were “going to be very disappointing for many politicians across the world.”
Yet another problem is the intermittence of wind. In Denmark, there is frequently too much when power is least needed, and large amounts are often sold abroad at nominal prices.
Peter Hjuler Jensen, program manager for wind turbines at the Risoe National Laboratory in Denmark, said researchers now are testing new storage systems and more responsive grids so that wind- generated energy is on tap when needed most, and so that consumers use energy when it is most abundant.
The new technologies meant Denmark should still be a leading user of wind power in 2025, when half of all the country’s electricity could come from the breeze, he said.
By James Kanter
21 March 2007
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