Recent weeks have seen unprecedented action on climate change. The European Union recently announced a plan to slash carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030 and the United States and China, the world's two largest emitters, have pledged to make their own dramatic cuts. Yet for all the fanfare, no nation can hold a candle to the climate policy of Denmark, whose ambitious approach to combating global warming could provide an international model for clean development.
Denmark has pledged to completely eliminate fossil fuels from its national energy mix by 2050. That's right: no coal, oil, or gas in the production of electricity — nor in the transportation sector, either.
To fulfill that vow, Denmark plans to rely heavily on the development of wind power. So far the country has installed more than 5,000 separate turbines with a total capacity of nearly 5 gigawatts, equivalent to the energy generated by more than 20 American coal-fired power plants. In the first half of 2014, wind accounted for 41.2 percent of Denmark's electricity consumption — a world record.
"The average Dane has a much less carbon-intensive lifestyle than citizens of other industrialized countries," Jason Schwartz, staff manager at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, told VICE News.
According to Kurt Kornbluth, director of the Program for International Energy Technologies at the University of California, Davis, three important factors have led to the Danes' success.
'When they see those turbines spinning, they don't say, that's ugly. They say, that's income.'
The first, Kornbluth told VICE News, is a government willing to impose progressive energy policies and a citizenry willing to accept them. Inspired by the oil embargoes of the 1970s, in subsequent decades the Danish government promoted large offshore wind installations and subsidized turbines by raising revenues through a carbon tax. Especially important were feed-in tariffs, a policy through which the government sets a guaranteed price on the power utilities purchase from renewable producers, helping them compete with fossil fuels.
The second factor, said Kornbluth, was the Danes' establishment of a system of wind turbine cooperatives, in which communities and individuals profit from excess power sold back to the grid. By 2001, some 86 percent of the country's wind power was owned by cooperatives, with over 100,000 total members.
"When they see those turbines spinning, they don't say, that's ugly," Kornbluth told VICE News. "They say, that's income."
The final factor in Denmark's success is a quirk of its geopolitical positioning. It has strong electrical linkages to Norway, which possesses abundant hydropower, and Sweden, which has ample nuclear output. Those sources of power serve as crucial backstops for Denmark on days when the wind doesn't blow and also provide outlets for the country to export electricity when it's unusually gusty. And while Norway plans to begin selling its excess hydro to the UK and Sweden may close its nuclear plants, for now, "Denmark is in the middle of a gigantic grid," Kornbluth said.
Denmark's renewable achievements are especially stark compared to the fossil fuel-dominated energy portfolio of the United States. According to the US Energy Information Administration, just 13 percent of American power came from renewable sources in 2013 — and more than half that paltry figure was generated by hydropower. Wind accounts for around 4 percent of total U.S. energy and solar less than one percent.
That will almost certainly change, however, as the cost of installing solar panels falls. According to a study from Deutsche Bank analyst Vishal Shah, solar electricity is already as cheap — or cheaper —than electricity from standard grid generation in 10 states, and is poised to reach so-called "grid parity" in 47 states as early as 2016.
The achievement of grid parity — the point at which an alternative energy source matches electricity grid prices — could be slowed by the expiration of a 30 percent tax credit on solar system costs. Even if the credit drops to 10 percent, however, Shah's report suggests that more than two-thirds of the country — 36 states — will soon reach parity.
As solar has become more economically viable, its share of the energy market has expanded. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the US installed fifteen times more photovoltaic capacity in 2013 than in 2008. Last year, solar installations represented 29 percent of new electrical capacity.
Still, substantial hurdles remain. The US doesn't have Denmark's cultural appetite for renewable energy. Proposals to install offshore wind turbines typically meet with strong opposition from so-called NIMBYs — those people who cringe at the sight of turbines and say, "not in my back yard" — nor has it emulated Danish renewable energy production policies at a large scale. Only six states have mandatory feed-in tariffs or similar programs.
A recent report from the International Energy Agency suggested that solar could be the world's largest energy source by midcentury — but only if the industry received "clear, credible and consistent signals from policy makers."
If the United States manages to provide those signals, it may learn something that Denmark's wind sector has known for a long time: leadership breeds more wealth, in the form of technological exports and consulting opportunities.
"One benefit of being a renewable energy leader is the expertise that goes along with that," Kornbluth told VICE News. "In many ways, that's as valuable as the actual energy."
Follow Ben Goldfarb on Twitter: @ben_a_goldfarb
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