Denmark's Wind of Change

How Denmark's green energy initiatives power its economy

  • Nicky Boone / Redux

    Residents of the Danish island of Samso, like Brian Kjar, with his electric car, have turned to wind farms and solar energy to erase their carbon footprint.

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    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.

    Read TIME's "Heroes of the Environment 2008 .

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