Winds of change

Svend Auken
describes the role of wind power in Denmark in moving towards a sustainable energy future.

Next year – in the summer of 2002 – 80 wind turbines will rise from the waves of the North Sea, 14 kilometres off the western coast of Denmark. Collectively they will form a large-scale wind farm that will provide electricity for 150,000 Danish families. They will both form a natural continuation of the last 25 years of wind power development in Denmark, and open a new era of sustainable energy supply.

Sustainable energy is a key issue in the overall discussion on sustainable development. It is obvious that the supply of energy is intimately related to sustainable development in terms of economy and social welfare as well as the environment. Everybody will probably agree on that. But differences of opinion begin when it comes to defining the balance to be reached between the three aspects.

Many would agree that we are not on a sustainable energy path but they would do so on completely different grounds. Most developing countries would be referring to the widespread lack of access to energy and to the fact that there is no clear prospect of providing it in the near future. Many industrialized countries would argue – as I do – that the long-term perspective of climate change makes it inconceivable to continue business as usual. Others would stress the perspective of running out of an adequate supply of fossil fuels. So, we all realize the need to change.

Let me present my perspective.

Climate change means that industrialized countries have to move vigorously towards cutting their emissions of greenhouse gases. We need very substantial cuts over the next few decades to make room for the aspirations of developing countries, which will inevitably lead to their emissions rising in coming years.

The first part is fairly straightforward: we need to save energy and improve our end-use efficiency as well as the efficiency of the conversion sectors. The many opportunities to save energy and increase efficiency represent a classical win-win situation – or even a win-win-win one, since we address scarce fossil resources, expenditure on energy and climate change at the same time.

But realizing them will only bring us part of the way towards de-coupling our use of energy from overall economic growth and cutting down emissions of greenhouse gases. The real challenge is to create long-term national and international policy frameworks for energy, which will move us completely away from our dependence on fossil fuels and allow us to create a future with much lower emissions of greenhouse gases from our use of energy.

We need incentives, opportunities and support for a sustained effort to explore the sustainable use of renewable energy resources, develop the technologies to do so and bring them to the market place. And if we do not face up to our common obligation to develop and provide the technology and finance to build a sustainable energy future for developing countries, we can forget all about mitigating climate change. Danish energy policies have for the last 20 years been moving forward along these lines.

Savings and improvements in efficiency have made it possible for Denmark to keep the use of energy stable over the last 30 years while our economy has grown by 75 per cent. As an important part of curbing and reducing Danish emissions, we have had a major drive for renewable energy – mainly wind power and biomass.

Wind energy today provides for 13 per cent of Danish electricity consumption. More than 6,200 wind turbines have been erected since the early 1980s, with a total capacity of 2,350 megawatts (MW). In just two years from now, we expect wind power to supply more than 20 per cent of our electricity needs. Today, wind generators at the best sites can deliver energy at the same price as coal-fired plants – and there are more reductions in cost to come.

In 2000, Danish wind-turbine manufacturers supplied turbines with a rated capacity of some 2,100 MW, accounting for half the world market, with a turnover of some $1.6 billion. From 1994 to 2000 the wind industry grew at a rate of some 40 per cent per annum, while growth rates of around 20 per cent per year are forecast for the first decade of the new century. Wind-turbine manufacturing, maintenance, installation and consultant services account for some 16,000 jobs in Denmark, while component supplies and installation of Danish turbines currently create another 6,000 jobs worldwide.

All in all, the facts on Danish wind power are impressive. But how did it come about?

Plant and equipment have very long lifetimes in the energy sector. Therefore, a long-term planning horizon – currently set at the year 2030 – is considered important to ensure consistency in policy, and to send strong signals to market actors about the policy scenario in which they will operate.

Another important issue is market development. In the early 1980s, the Danish Government instituted a number of market development schemes, originally funding 30 per cent of investments in new wind turbines, but gradually lowering this support until it was abandoned in 1989. During the 1990s fixed prices and production subsidies were used to nurse the market. In the future this pricing system will be changed to a market system, where wind turbines will receive a market price plus green certificates. This change should be seen as recognition of wind power as a proven technology in the future electricity markets.

A type-approval scheme for wind turbines was established in the late 1970s at the National Laboratory at Risoe to ensure that Government-subsidized turbines had a certain level of quality and safety. Risoe today has an important research department for wind energy, with some 50 scientists and engineers employed in research on aerodynamics, meteorology and wind assessment, structural dynamics, advanced materials and related areas.

The policy to promote wind power in Denmark has been a challenge for municipal and regional planning, given the country’s high population density. For the past few years, Danish municipalities have been required to make plans for siting wind turbines. Sites for more than 2,600 MW have been made available after the recent round of planning, with extensive hearing procedures for local residents.

The lesson is first and foremost that it can be done. Determined and long-term political commitment can bring down costs and create new markets for technologies supporting sustainable development.

There are already numerous opportunities for pursuing renewable energy. Many new technologies are in the pipeline – and we need a vigorous effort to bring them to the market in due time.

The future development of wind power in Denmark will be mainly offshore. Although replacing old turbines leaves room for increased capacity, very little space is left on land for new installations.

Watch the seas around Denmark in the coming years to catch a glimpse of the first large-scale offshore wind farms in the world

Svend Auken was Danish Minister for the Environment from 1993 to 1994, and Minister of Environment and Energy from 1994 to 2001.

PHOTOGRAPH: K Shinde/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Secure and sustainable | Fuelling multilateralism | Meeting growing needs | Make way for the zero-litre car | Power sharing | Oil and rising water | Energetic challenges | At a glance: Energy | Competition | Power to the people | Cutting carbon | Winds of change| Power and choice | Rising sun | Give us a wave! | Less energy, more wealth

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action December 1998
Issue on Climate change December 1997
Svend Auken: Celebration And Challenge (Hazardous waste) 1999

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Climate change
Air pollution