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Wind power pays well for Denmark
Nation at forefront of $4 billion industry
Colin Woodard, Chronicle Foreign Service
Monday, April 23, 2001, ©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
Copenhagen, Denmark -- Arriving in the Danish capital by sea, the first thing travelers see of the country is a row of 20 enormous wind turbines gently spinning above the waves nearly two miles from shore.
Completed in December, the Middelgrunden Wind Farm is the world's largest offshore wind power facility. Its wind machines, each with blades 100 feet long, together generate enough power to supply 32,000 households.
Middelgrunden is a fitting symbol for Denmark. Renewable, nonpolluting wind power has become the world's fastest-growing energy source in recent years, and no country illustrates that growth better than Denmark, which has emerged as the undisputed leader in wind energy.
Ironically, Denmark owes that position in part to California, which jump- started the country's wind energy industry in the 1980s when it purchased and installed more than 10,000 wind turbines in windy mountain passes. Many of the turbines were supplied by Danish companies.
"The California 'wind rush' is the whole foundation for the Danish success we see today," said Christian Kjaer, an economist with the Danish Wind Manufacturer's Association in Copenhagen. California's "wind rush" died with the expiration of federal and state tax credits, but it helped establish a 20-year track record for Danish wind machines. And the Danish government has since stepped in with a system of price supports to encourage wind energy at home.
Today, this tiny nation of 5 million dominates the industry. Danish companies supplied more than half the turbines now in use worldwide, making turbines one of the country's largest exports. The turbine industry alone employs more than 12,000 here.
Denmark is benefiting from worldwide growth in wind energy, which averaged 24 percent during the 1990s, 37 percent in 1999 and 26 percent last year. Wind is now a $4 billion industry able to produce 17,000 megawatts of electricity, or enough to supply some 6 million U.S. homes.
"The last few years have seen tremendous growth," said Vicky Pollard of the European Wind Energy Association in Brussels. "With natural gas prices rising and costs falling, wind is competitive in many parts of the world."
The industry expects record-setting growth this year too, spurred in part by California's widening energy crisis. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) in Washington expects more than 5,000 megawatts of new wind farms to be completed this year, led by new projects in the United States.
"What we've seen going on in California has got utilities rethinking the value of diversifying their sources of electricity," said Randall Swisher, the AWEA's executive director. "Given the economics and environmental benefits, there's no question that wind is going to be a big participant in the power markets of the 21st century."
And tiny Denmark will be at the forefront. Wind turbines dot the Danish countryside like gigantic pinwheels and currently generate 13 percent of the country's electricity supply. The government plans to increase that figure to 50 percent by 2030.
For most of the last century, Danes depended on imported coal and oil to heat and power homes, factories and vehicles. The oil shocks of the early 1970s prompted a change in strategy for many oil-dependent nations.
But while other countries invested in nuclear power and synthetic fuels, Denmark instead made substantial investments in developing wind power. "I don't think we can save the world with wind energy," says Kjaer of the Danish Wind Manufacturer's Association. "But we can show the world that being environmentally conscious doesn't have to come at the expense of economic growth."
Danish farmers had long used windmills to power pumps, and the first electricity-generating wind turbine was installed here in the late 19th century. Now farm machinery makers turn to building wind machines to generate electricity.
The government passed laws requiring utilities to buy the power at a fair price. Thousands of rural residents joined wind power cooperatives, collectively buying turbines and selecting and leasing sites to build them, often on a member's land.
"In densely populated areas like Europe, wind projects can only succeed with the support of the people who live near them," says Preben Maegaard of the Folkecenter for Renewable Energy in Ydby, who says 175,000 Danes own shares in wind co-ops. "People accepted wind turbines because they could become partial owners of them."
Government policies are even more important, according to industry experts. Wind power has succeeded only where and when governments have provided tax or investment incentives or laws guaranteeing wind producers can sell electricity at an attractive price.
"Conventional energy sources have benefited from years of government support and private investment," says Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. "These laws are a way to allow renewables to get a leg up in the marketplace," benefiting society by reducing pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign energy.
When Danish price supports lapsed in 1999, so did orders for new turbines, demonstrating the importance of policy supports. Investors are waiting until next year, when a new greenhouse gas credit system is to be phased in. This year the U.S. market is expected to grow dramatically.
The West Coast's power shortages are one reason. The Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest recently started accepting proposals for 1,000 megawatts of new wind farms to help meet the region's increasing electricity demands.
Wind farms can be built in only two to three years, much faster than other power plants, according to AWEA.
And in Texas, George W. Bush signed electricity restructuring legislation while he was still governor that requires 400 megawatts of new renewable energy generation by 2003 and 2,000 megawatts by 2009, enough to cover 3 percent of the state's electricity needs. Six other states have adopted similar but less ambitious targets.
MORE OFFSHORE PLANS
Meanwhile, in Europe the emphasis is beginning to shift to offshore wind farms. Such farms are more expensive to build, but can be built much larger because they aren't in anyone's backyard. Huge new offshore farms are planned off the coasts of Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark, some as big as 160 megawatts -- about four times the size of Middelgrunden.
"We're the largest offshore wind park in the world," says engineer Hans Sorensen of the Middelgrunden Wind Farm Cooperative, who helped design the farm. "But we won't be No. 1 for long."
Top five nations in wind energy Electricity generated As percent of (kilowatt hours domestic Country Installed capacity per year) demand Germany 6,113 megawatts 11.5 billion 2.5% United States 2,554 megawatts 5.5 billion Less than 1% Spain 2,250 megawatts 5.3 billion About 2% Denmark 2,140 megawatts 5 billlion 13% India 1,167 megawatts 2 billion (Not available)
SOURCE: American Wind Energy Association Chronicle Graphic
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