Though tensions were running high during the second week of the Copenhagen climate talks, one mid-day event organized by the Danish Climate Consortium provided a maritime respite from the heat of the debate, allowing high-profile dignitaries from around the world to rub elbows whilst touring the world’s first off-shore wind turbine array, Middelgrunden.

In the mix were a pack of Chinese energy officials, two energy ministers from Canada, the delegation from Sonoma County in California (which pioneered some of nation’s leading energy legislation), and several engineers and scholars including John Isham of Middlebury College whose innovative power plant I wrote about earlier this year.

As John mentions in his intro, this is a 40 megawatt array with 2 megawatt turbines manufactured by Siemens, which makes it a relatively small wind project compared to the scale of new offshore projects but it is one of the earliest, making it an important case study for industry.

The array was erected in 2000 by Denmark’s largest energy utility DONG Energy, who researched coastal wind patterns for determine the alignment of the turbines and engineered the state-of-the-art concrete foundations.

D-O-N-G stands for Denmark Oil & Natural Gas, but it's clear that this state-run utility has every intention (and a lot of incentive) to switch to renewables. Their existing fleet of coal-fired power plants are entering their sunset years, and financing new coal plants is becoming increasingly difficult.

In other words, wind may soon have its day, but the conversion to a predominantly wind-powered grid has its challenges.

Though the turbines are linked to the grid and supply a healthy portion of electricity to the city (enough to power about 25,000 homes) I spoke with the engineer on deck, Katrine, who made it clear that energy storage technologies (like batteries and fly-wheels) have a way to go before wind can be scaled up significantly. In the meantime coal and biomass fill in for wind’s variable energy production.

Take note though — Denmark is now running the world’s first test project for Better Place, a program in which municipalities use a network of decentralized batteries leased to electric car owners. The batteries can store the wind power and use it to reduce the nations’ dependence on oil for transportation … one more step towards carbon neutrality.

It would take hundreds of thousands of such vehicles to make the system work, but Denmark could well be one of the first countries to pull it off. With insanely high car and gas prices (normal gas cars are taxed 180 percenty at purchase) it will be easy for the government to encourage rapid adoption of these battery-powered vehicles be removing the tax (or even providing a rebate).

The more electric cars, the more wind can be brought on the grid. So stay tuned as Denmark’s experiment in energy independence continues.

Check out more off-shore wind projects with Siemens wind turbines (PDF).

Boating through a wind farm
Video footage from our tour of an off-shore wind farm in Denmark.. will wind replace an aging fleet of coal plants?