How Denmark Became the Nation Most Likely to Be Powered by Wind

The Scandinavian nation is on track to become the first to ditch coal, oil, and gas in the age of climate change.

May 2 2014, 6:51pm
Denmark's offshore wind. Image: Flickr

Denmark is making good on one of the world's most aggressive plans to transition entirely to clean energy. The government aims to generate 70 percent of the nation's power from renewable sources—mostly offshore and onshore wind farms—by 2020. It then plans to add enough solar power, electric car infrastructure, and waste-to-energy plants to be able to ditch coal, oil, and gas altogether. If all goes well, Denmark will ratchet up its sustainable power levels to 100 percent by mid-century.  

These plans have been on the books for years now, but the real news is that it's right on track. At a time when other nations are reneging on clean energy promises, Denmark is barreling ahead. It means that Denmark may very well become the first rich, industrialized erstwhile chugger of fossil fuels to transform itself entirely into a clean energy economy in the age of climate change. It will, in essence, be doing precisely what every heavily polluting nation on the planet needs to do, on that timeline, if we're to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. 

"Today, we're already at 43 percent," Kristoffer Böttzauw recently told DW, Germany's international broadcasting organization. Böttzauw is the deputy director general of the energy agency that coordinates Denmark's energy policy, and he says that the nation's goal is entirely "realistic."

Now, there are already a few nations that run on near or total renewable energy—Iceland, for instance, harnesses hydro and geothermal power to meet their energy needs, and Norway, which is just slightly less populous than Denmark, is almost all dam-power. But they've been doing so since the early 80s, and have not had to undertake the massive project of reorganizing their energy economies. 

That's the truly difficult part: uprooting the status quo. Decommissioning entrenched coal power plants, quarreling with utilities to favor renewables, bucking powerful energy companies that have relied on extracted fossil fuels to make them rich for centuries.

Granted, Denmark had a head start. After the energy crisis of the 70s, the nation was an early adopter of wind power technology. The ensuing decades of research have helped its wind power company, Vestas, to become one of the leading players in the international field, and gives the nation an advantage in its clean energy endeavors.

The other key to Denmark's burgeoning success is better general environmental awareness, and, wait for it: social equality.

In 2011, I traveled to Denmark on a state-sponsored tour of the country's myriad sustainability projects. I saw new waste-to-heat power plants, sustainable homes built in the suburbs, the best urban bicycling infrastructure anywhere in the planet, and the most advanced government-sponsored wind power research lab I'd ever set foot in. How is it, I wondered, that the nation had assembled all of these great, pollution-killing things? 

The short answer turned out to be really high taxes. And a really high quality of living that makes people feel better about losing a portion of their paychecks to, say, higher energy taxes. Denmark, along with its Scandinavian neighbors, has one of the lowest income inequality levels of any OECD countries. While inequality is on the rise there, as it is in most developed nations, it's still nowhere near the same league as the US. My working thesis was that its greater social equality made everyone more willing to cooperate on environmental projects—good, important undertakings that hurt everyone's pocketbook closer to the same amount. 

With those higher taxes, Denmark's government is able to incentivize clean energy production, pay landowners for the inconvenience of hosting wind turbines on their turf, and invest, long-term, in infrastructure that reduces carbon emissions. For instance, it's working on a grid system for its cities that would allow electric vehicles to act as batteries that can pump energy back into the system as well as out of it.

It's a reminder that properly undertaking the massive transition to clean energy transition we humans are going to need if we want to dodge climatic disaster, it's going to take more than cleantech investment and more renewable energy funding—it's probably going to require some vast social innovation as well.