Friday, March 20, 2009

Denmark shows that acting on climate can be a positive experience

strategies.The Danes are convinced that it is possible to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, and achieve economic growth. Their belief is not based on theory but on experience. Denmark has become a model of how to successfully implement energy efficiency and renewable energy One of their 'secrets' is that they not only use clean energy technologies like wind turbines -- they make them as well. In fact, theirs are among the best in the world.

If all that doesn't impress you, consider this: in 2006 according to a worldwide survey conducted by University of Leicester professor Adrian White Denmark is the "happiest place on earth". (GW)

Denmark's Wind of Change

By Bryan Walsh/Samso
Februry 25, 2009

If you want to know why Denmark is the world's leader in wind power, start with a three-hour car trip from the capital Copenhagen — mind the bicyclists — to the small town of Lem on the far west coast of Jutland. You'll feel it as you cross the 4.2 mile-long (6.8 km) Great Belt Bridge: Denmark's bountiful wind, so fierce even on a calm summer's day that it threatens to shove your car into the waves below. But wind itself is only part of the reason. In Lem, workers in factories the size of aircraft hangars build the wind turbines sold by Vestas, the Danish company that has emerged as the industry's top manufacturer around the globe. The work is both gross and fine; employees weld together massive curved sheets of steel to make central shafts as tall as a 14-story building, and assemble engine housings that hold some 18,000 separate parts. Most impressive are the turbine's blades, which scoop the wind with each sweeping revolution. As smooth as an Olympic swimsuit and honed to aerodynamic perfection, each blade weighs in at 15,400 lbs. (7,000 kg), and they're what help make Vestas' turbines the best in the world. "The blade is where the secret is," says Erik Therkelsen, a Vestas executive. "If we can make [a turbine], it's sold."

But technology, like the wind itself, is just one more part of the reason for Denmark's dominance. In the end, it happened because Denmark had the political and public will to decide that it wanted to be a leader — and to follow through. Beginning in 1979, the government began a determined program of subsidies and loan guarantees to build up its nascent wind industry. Copenhagen covered 30% of investment costs, and guaranteed loans for large turbine exporters such as Vestas. It also mandated that utilities purchase wind energy at a preferential price — thus guaranteeing investors a customer base. Energy taxes were channeled into research centers, where engineers crafted designs that would eventually produce cutting-edge giants like Vestas' 3-megawatt (MW) V90 turbine. (Read TIME's "Heroes of the Environment 2008.)

As a result, wind turbines now dot Denmark, the country gets more than 19% of its electricity from the breeze (Spain and Portugal, the next highest countries, get about 10%) and Danish companies control a whopping one-third of the global wind market, earning billions in exports and creating a national champion from scratch. "They were out early in driving renewables, and that gave them the chance to be a technology leader and a job-creation leader," says Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council. "They have always been one or two steps ahead of others."

The challenge now for Denmark is to help the rest of the world catch up. Beyond wind, the country (pop. 5.5 million) is a world leader in energy efficiency, getting more GDP per watt than any other member of the E.U. Carbon emissions are down 13.3% from 1990 levels and total energy consumption has barely moved, even as Denmark's economy continued to grow at a healthy clip. With Copenhagen set to host all-important U.N. climate change talks in December — where the world hopes for a successor to the expiring Kyoto Protocol — and the global recession beginning to hit environmental plans in capitals everywhere, Denmark's example couldn't be more timely. "We'll try to make Denmark a showroom," says Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "You can reduce energy use and carbon emissions, and achieve economic growth."

It's tempting to assume that Denmark is innately green, with the kind of Scandinavian good conscience that has made it such a pleasant global citizen since, oh, the whole Viking thing. But the country's policies were actually born from a different emotion, one now in common currency: fear. When the 1973 oil crisis hit, 90% of Denmark's energy came from petroleum, almost all of it imported. Buffeted by the same supply shocks that hit the rest of the developed world, Denmark launched a rapid drive for energy conservation, to the point of introducing car-free Sundays and asking businesses to switch off lights during closing hours. Eventually the Mideast oil started flowing again, and the Danes themselves began enjoying the benefits of the petroleum and natural gas in their slice of the North Sea. It was enough to make them more than self-sufficient. But unlike most other countries, Denmark never forgot the lessons of 1973, and kept driving for greater energy efficiency and a more diversified energy supply. The Danish parliament raised taxes on energy to encourage conservation and established subsidies and standards to support more efficient buildings. "It all started out without any regard for the climate or the environment," says Svend Auken, the former head of Denmark's opposition Social Democrat party and the architect of the country's environmental policies in the 1990s. "But today there's a consensus that we need to build out renewable power."

Denmark's dominance of wind power was born in the Riso National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy. Riso, founded in 1958 to focus on nuclear research, is easy to miss on the road to the university town of Roskilde; only the test turbines on its grounds give away the campus's purpose. Turbine manufacturers from around the world test at Riso, where researchers are so expert at honing the aerodynamics of a blade that they've helped turn wind turbines from backyard mills to multi-megawatt farms.

The focus on wind continues, but today Riso — now part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) — is a global leader in hydrogen fuel-cell research, which could eventually provide a viable storage technology to counter the challenge of intermittent renewables like wind. "Environmental technology is something that can drive industrial exports for Denmark," says John Christensen, head of the UNEP Riso Centre on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development. "We can and should take advantage of this."

The key to turning that research into reality was not just generous government aid, but the fact that Denmark stayed with it. While countries like the U.S. let tax credits for renewable energy wax and wane, smothering infant green industries in the crib, Denmark looks to the long term. In the 1990s, the government inaugurated tariffs that required utilities to offer 10-year fixed-rate contracts for wind power. That sort of security led to a rapid expansion of wind power at home — the country has more than 5,200 turbines producing in excess of 3,100 MW of electricity — and helped firms like Vestas scale up and perfect their technology so they could dominate abroad.

And it's not just wind power. Denmark's energy efficiency has vastly improved in other areas such as the use of combined heat and power, where power plants recycle the waste energy from their operations as heat, which can be distributed to homes and businesses. Denmark last year was the first European nation to sign up for the innovative electric car model promoted by start-up company Better Place, which plans to construct a network of charging stations throughout the small country. Then there's the way Danes build. Denmark doesn't quite lead the world in green building, but it is expert in certain materials. Take VKR, founded during World War II as a window manufacturer. Through its subsidiaries the firm now markets efficient skylights and vertical windows, and in recent years has shifted into rooftop solar heating. Government policies and strict regulations have helped here too. "The mega-trend today is renewable energy and energy efficiency, and we're improving them both," says Leif Jensen, VKR's CEO.

The fruits of that investment and innovation are best tasted in an unlikely place that has emerged as the symbol of Denmark's greenness: Samso island. Located in the Kattegat Strait, Samso (pop. 4,300) was far from cutting-edge when, in 1997, it won a government competition to become a model for how a community can run on renewable energy. At the time Samso was entirely dependent on oil and coal, both of which it imported from the mainland. A little more than a decade later Samso is effectively carbon negative, producing more than 100% of the electricity it needs from renewable sources, chiefly wind and biomass. The architect of that transformation is Soren Hermansen, a former farmer and environmental studies teacher, who lobbied, cajoled and pushed his initially reluctant neighbors to go green.

Island Lessons

A tour of Samso feels a bit like a greatest hits collection of Denmark's successful energy policies. The island features district heating plants fired by waste biomass such as straw. The plants provide heat to homes in lieu of more polluting oil-burning furnaces. When the sun is shining — which, admittedly, is not often — solar thermal panels provide hot water. Wind power is everywhere — on land, where towering turbines shade cows on a dairy farm, and offshore, where 10 turbines greet the incoming ferries like a row of sentinels. Many of the turbines are owned collectively by resident associations, with members chipping in to buy a slice of wind power. ("If you let people become a part of the solution," says Hermansen, "it works better.") Others are owned by single investors like Jorgen Tranberg, a dairy farmer. Tranberg, who likes to spend his spare time watching his cows on closed-circuit TV ("It's better than the news"), believes Samso's success could be replicated elsewhere. "We're not special people here," he says.

But there is something special in the way that Samso's residents — and Danes as a whole — have adapted to 21st-century realities about energy and the environment. Hermansen credits the Danish tendency to organize in groups, which helps reinforce support for going green. "To us, going for lower energy use is like a sport," he says. That sense of communal competition is shared by Denmark's Scandinavian neighbors, and may help explain why countries like Sweden and Finland are also among Europe's greenest. On a regional level, cooperation is a necessary component of Denmark's success — the Nordic nations share an electrical grid, and Denmark can take power from its neighbors when there's no wind and sell it when the breeze blows. But it also has something to do with the way people in the region think. "This is a place where people are highly motivated to address climate change," says Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund. "Denmark says, 'We can do this, come join us.'"

Within Denmark, critics worry that the current government is squandering energy leadership. When Rasmussen's conservatives took power in 2001, they scaled back subsidies for wind and other renewables. New wind installations dropped precipitously, and between 2004 and 2006 CO2 emissions increased by 3%. "They stopped everything," says Auken. One high-ranking official admits the pullback was a mistake, and last year the government released a new policy that sets sharp targets for improving energy efficiency, increases the CO2 tax and promotes the development of new offshore wind turbines. Nonetheless, the Finnish consultancy Poyry argued in a recent report that the government's new plan doesn't ensure that Denmark will meet its Kyoto targets by 2012. (Denmark has to reduce CO2 emissions to 21% below 1990 levels, one of the most aggressive targets in the world.) The government says Denmark remains on track — and they'll need to be, as the host of the climate summit. "We'll be ready for Copenhagen," says Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for climate and energy, who will host the meeting.

Denmark's own challenges are small compared to the gargantuan task of trying to get more than 190 nations to agree on new carbon-cutting targets. (Rasmussen, an avid cyclist, compares the Copenhagen summit to the Tour de France's punishing Alpe d'Huez climbing stage — which he tried for himself last summer.) But the country does have the power of its example, showing that you can stay rich and grow green at the same time. "Denmark has proven that acting on climate can be a positive experience, not just painful," says NRDC's Schmidt. The real pain could come from failing to follow in their footsteps.


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