Wind power: Denmark leads the green curve
Turbines are a Danish specialty — what can the U.S. do to catch up?
Thu, Jan 22, 2009 at 03:44 PM
Photo: courtesy of Vestas
Denmark rules the world in wind power. Its 5,500 wind turbines generate 16 percent of the country's electricity. And its innovation dominates wind technology around the world. Look at turbines spinning in Greece, India or Spain — most look distinctly Danish.
What makes the Danes so dazzling in the world of wind power?
The country did something wild and revolutionary in the 1970s when the price of Mideast oil first skyrocketed.
It made a plan to develop renewable fuels.
And then stuck to it.
Sandy Butterfield, who heads wind power research at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colo., says the Danes had the foresight to educate their own population about wind potential, and also gained support of other countries to broaden the appeal of this clean, abundant energy.
"They set long-term incentives. Farmers invested in two or three turbines at a time. Then they reached out to different governments to help them get a coherent program going," Butterfield says.
Denmark, about twice the size of Massachusetts, had all the natural ingredients for a sea change in energy policy. Plenty of wind. Plenty of farms to locate turbines without disturbing pigs or crops. And plenty of coastline to develop offshore wind farms.
A well-educated, environmentally conscious population helped the young industry. So did a federal government much smaller and less contentious than the United States.
"For a little country, Denmark is definitely driving the boat on wind technology," Butterfield says. "And they are doing a wonderful job."
Over that same 40 years, U.S. attempts at energy conservation and independence are best described as unstable and incoherent — by both business and environmental groups.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter implored Americans to conserve energy in what's now known as "the malaise speech." Carter also had solar panels installed on the White House. President Ronald Reagan had them all yanked out in 1986. With that harsh change in political winds, many U.S. wind companies simply went belly up.
Roby Roberts, senior vice president of wind-power company Vestas, says that's when Denmark showed its commitment was for the long haul.
"In the bad old days when Ronald Reagan defunded the U.S. energy program, and the price of natural gas went to nothing, Denmark stuck with it," Roberts says. "They created the proper tax climate, and political climate. They supported the wind industry during both peaks and valleys."
The strategy paid off. Today Vestas has 35,000 wind turbines in 63 countries. Ten thousand of them are in North America.
"The on-again, off-again incentives are really frustrating for all of us in the industry," says Butterfield, who has worked for both the government and in the private sector on wind energy.
The election of Barack Obama has triggered genuine optimism across the renewable-energy arena. Will it be enough to meet his goal of 20 percent wind energy by 2030?
Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, says the industry has created more than 50 new factories since the beginning of 2007, as well as 14,000 new manufacturing jobs. She says 80,000 workers are now employed by this green industry, and it could eventually support a work force of half a million.
That optimism is also being felt among wind researchers like Butterfield.
"Right after the election, I got calls and e-mails from colleagues all over the world saying 'welcome back to center stage.' They are so ready for us to be part of the solution," he says.
But there are still steep challenges. With the world economy in the Dumpster, clean energy and global warming could take a back seat to more immediate human needs. And still unknown is just how to put large amounts of wind-generated electricity onto the current vulcanized U.S. utility grid.
Pioneers in wind energy believe innovation can help make the transition from a carbon-based economy to something cleaner, more affordable and more abundant: the green economy Obama has championed.
"There is no reason you can't convert a lot of the auto industry into making wind turbines," Butterfield says. "There are jobs in this."
If only the U.S. government can get over its notoriously short attention span.