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Wind power in Denmark
by Patrick Cox
October 26, 2000

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This month one of the country's largest electricity producers, the Tennessee Valley Authority, flipped the switch on its newest power generators: three massive windmills. The authority has planted the mills - somewhat symbolically - on a disused strip mine. But these turbines, as they're called, aren't a home-grown product. Like many other modern mills in operation here they were manufactured in a small European nation with a reputation for environmental innovation. In this final report in our series on renewable energy around the globe, The World's Patrick Cox reports on how Denmark has become the global leader in wind power.


In Denmark, the wind seldom lets up. This country is made up of more than a thousand islands. Stiff westerly breezes blow almost all the time.

(announcement by man on ferry)

Arriving at the island of Samsoe by ferry you can see all kinds of windmills on the horizon: the old-fashioned sorts, like the ones in Van Gogh paintings -- and also the newer types, tall steel poles topped by what look like vast airplane propellers.

(noise of turbine)

This turbine is about twenty years old and it produces enough energy to supply the electricity for one house, the home of local environmental consultant Soren Hermansen. Hermansen is one the organizers of an ambitious program funded by the Danish government. It's called the Energy Island Project.

Hermansen: When we introduced the Energy Island Project we claimed that we wanted to be a hundred percent self-supplied by energy in the year 2008, and what we did was, we started out with the wind turbines.

Hermansen knew that for the island to switch to total self-sufficiency it would mean erecting several turbines far bigger than the one in his backyard. So today, eleven sleek, modern turbines each 300-feet high, dot Samsoe's skyline. They generate 75-percent of the energy needs of the island's 4-thousand 4-hundred inhabitants.

The big turbines are actually quieter and far more efficient than the older models. The Danes have been pouring money into researching wind power -- ever since 1972 when the Danish government turned against nuclear power.

Hermansen: Everybody expected us to have the first nuclear power station around that time and the drawings and the planning was already made for the plant. But then there was such a big public resistance against nuclear power that the political parties actually said no, they voted no to nuclear power. Then the responsibility came back to the grassroots or to the people that said no. They were asked "What else can you offer?" And they said, "Well renewable energy like solar like biomass, like wind." I think from there, we had to be serious about the development of renewable energy machinery like wind turbines.

Martin Glerup: We have in our little country 5,700 windmills.

Martin Glerup, chairman of the Danish parliament's Energy committee, says, in contrast to the United States, the Danes have a national energy policy. And what's more, it's aimed at phasing out fossil fuels in favor of wind power and other renewable resources.

Glerup: The difference between Denmark and the United States is that the Danish government is not afraid of demanding people to use a certain percent of their consumption from renewable energy.

In other words the government requires utilities to generate a certain amount of green power and consumers to buy it. And that's leading to new innovations.

(Sound of shipyard in Copenhagen)

At this former shipyard in Copenhagen, the foundations for 20 wind turbines are under construction. The turbines, a joint project of the local utility and a co-operative of shareholders, are headed for the ocean. When in place in the shallow waters off Eastern Denmark, they'll be the world's largest offshore wind farm. The rotation of their giant blades will generate enough electricity to power 60-thousand households. Christian Kjaer of the Danish Wind Turbine Association says improved technology and economies of scale have transformed the industry.

Kjaer: The cost of producing wind energy today is is one-fifth of the cost in the beginning of the 80s, and we expect a similar fall in cost of producing wind turbines in the years to come as well.

Danish turbine manufacturers already sell thousands of windmills abroad -- in fact they've built more than half the world's turbines. Germany and Spain are especially big clients. And so is the US, though, relative to its size, the US is moving at a snail's pace. This, in spite of the commitments the Clinton Administration has made to reducing greenhouse gases. In the US, energy policy is largely controlled at the state level, and some states are more inclined to subsidize the likes of wind power than others.

But if the Danish experience is anything to go by, subsidies, initially, are unavoidable. The manager of one Copenhagen turbine project, Jens Larsen, argues that Danish government subsidies are more than justified because they reduce the amount of fossil fuels abeing burned.

Jens: You have to get the environmental benefits into the price, but then the wind power can compete with nearly everything. It's the most economic energy source in the world.

(People talking on a farm)

Back on the island of Samsoe, environmental activists spend a lot of time trying to persuade local farmers to buy into renewable energy. Many of the farmers are now convinced, even if, like Morten Christensen, they're not crazy about aesthetics of turbines.

Christensen: At first I thought the big windmills, they didn't look very good in the landscape. And I thought well if you have to look at them anyway you might as well get one of your own. After seeing the first 3 windmills we got up, I think they're not looking that bad in the country. I think the design is a lot better.

Hermansen: The easy part is whenever you can convince people you can benefit from the projects. If you can earn a bit of money on it, then people think well renewable energy is not that bad.

That's Soren Hermansen again, of the Energy Island Project. He's pleased that the wind power component of the plan is up and running. But now he faces a bigger challenge. He's now going back to his turbine investors all of them island neighbors -- and asking them to do more like buy clean-energy heaters, solar panels and even cars that don't run on gasoline.

Hermansen: That's a harder process because we have to deal with a lot of individual persons who think that well, I bought some shares in the wind turbine out there, I've done my bit, and I don't care about the rest of it. And that's a private opinion that we have to take very seriously because we can't interfere with private decisions that easily.

But, the way Hermansen sees it, the fact that the island has taken care of most of its energy needs by putting up a few turbines sets a powerful example.

Hermansen: What we experienced here from converting to renewable energy can be replicated in almost any small community anywhere in the world actually.

Anywhere, at least, where there's a breeze blowing, a government rich enough subsidize a conversion, and a lot of political will.

(sound of wind turbine)

Wind turbines certainly aren't welcome everywhere. In parts of the US, wind power has earned a bad reputation because sometimes the wind doesn't blow and turbines fail to deliver electricity on time. In Britain, the government this week said it would pump more than 70-million dollars into wind power and other renewables. But many Britons object to the look of wind turbines, and ambitious plans for big wind farms have been abandoned.

Nonetheless, the amount of electricity generated by wind power worldwide has grown more than sevenfold in the past decade. With oil prices high, nuclear power unpopular in many countries, and most nations committed to reducing greenhouse gases, wind energy has a bright if blustery future.

For The World, I'm Patrick Cox in Samsoe, Denmark.

copyright Exploratorium 2001