Lessons from an Emerging Wind Power

The people of Denmark have a story to tell in their own Nordic unassuming way. You hear it from quietly proud Per Volund, an engineer, as he takes a group of Americans out on a small boat to tour the Middlegrunden wind farm in Copenhagen harbor. Volund, the vice chairman of the cooperative that runs the 20 turbines, pointed at the arc of units standing in the tides one recent wintry day, providing the Danish capital with 4 percent of its electricity since 2000. “We solved all the problems to make it happen and proved that this is possible and not too complicated,” he said.

Denmark, with a population about equal to Wisconsin’s, has emerged a global superpower in wind energy, led by homegrown companies like Vestas and LM Glasfiber. Now Vestas has a commanding market share of worldwide wind turbine production and LM is a world leader in manufacturing wind blades. Today, 21,000 Danes work in the wind industry.

Scientists who are helping to nurture the country’s fast-evolving wind technology are vocal. Sten Frandsen of the Risoe National Laboratory says that he envisions the eventual erection of a 20-megawatt wind generator whose whooshing blades would define a 250-meter diameter circle. That would be about the height of the Eiffel Tower or almost the length of three football fields. “Diameter is the most important factor,” the bearded scientist said. “It takes energy out of the air as it rotates.”

You are told the story by earnest, idealistic officials like Michel Schilling, who explained how and why the Danes intend to create a generating system that uses wind turbines to generate half of the country’s electricity. “We in Denmark have shown that wind energy can be part of a modern, highly industrialized society — that it can meet the demands for electricity,” said Schilling, who is in charge of the government’s wind initiatives.

Denmark has been developing wind generation ever since the oil price rise shocks of three decades ago. Even though modest amounts of oil were found near its shores, Denmark continued to work on wind power. Drive Denmark’s back roads and you will see wind turbines planted on many hilltops. The country is eager to continue to ramp up its wind technology.

Some credit northern Europe’s culture of frugality and a strong commitment to the environment. Others cite a Nordic ethic. Government has a role to play in directing society. Citizens must also shoulder the taxes and support the subsidies that make it possible to pursue renewable technologies while they are in their early, startup phases.

Carol Gold, a historian at the University of Alaska who has studied and lived in Denmark, said the country has benefited from “a sense that the government is more `us’ than `them.'” Couple that with a sense of pride shared by many Europeans, “a sense of `we can show the Americans how to do it,'” Gold said. Then you will better understand the continent’s current passion about renewables.

U.S. Wind

The argument against massive wind power development in the United States has centered on the intermittency of the resource. Wind power generation works at maximum efficiency about one-third of the time. Thus, a heavy reliance on wind would necessitate development of other generation that could be tapped when wind is not available.

Danish energy planners neatly sidestep that issue because their nation has major transmission line connections to Sweden and Norway, where hydroelectric power resources are about triple Denmark’s annual electricity consumption, and to Germany, which has diverse generation resources. By comparison, in the United States, the most abundant wind resources are in the middle of the country relatively far from coastal population centers. A major reliance on wind generation would require a significant investment in upgrading the power grid.

Denmark declared a year ago that it intends to double its wind generation capacity to 6,000 megawatts (MW). The United States has 15,000 MW of wind power installed meeting almost 1 percent of national electricity demand. The Danes intend to deploy 500 to 1,000 offshore wind turbines to generate enough electricity to meet its residential customers’ needs.

“This isn’t an impossible vision,” said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. “The Danes really look at wind as a critical technology for the future.”

The Danish rush to wind is not unique, at least for Europe. Germany and Spain are noted for wind turbine deployments. One of the world’s largest wind turbines, a 5-MW unit, now spins near Hamburg. As for seeding the European coast with wind generation, some wind backers are calling for up to 40,000 MW of offshore wind generation by 2020, which would satisfy 4 percent of the continent’s electricity needs.

Can the United States replicate, perhaps more modestly, what is being attempted in Denmark? Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chair Joseph Kelliher said it would require strong regional power grids. Today, there are more than 500 transmission owners, “500 sets of hands pulling the levers for those 500 machines,” he said, in a personal interview. Coordinating an array of relatively small generators spread over a vast expanse for the benefit of far off urban centers will require complex coordination, something made difficult by today’s balkanized grid. Furthermore, while annual investment in transmission has doubled since 2002, Kelliher said, it is “still not adequate.”

Wind advocates say that an investment of $60 billion in 19,000 miles of 765-kilovolt transmission lines would spur development of massive arrays of wind generation in the United States. They are focused on 20 percent wind penetration by 2030.

As for those Americans who say the design of the current power grid is an impediment to widespread wind generation, Danes say America must make needed investments in the grid to make it more reliable. Investing in the grid, they emphasize, would allow wind generation to go forward, in a big and inexpensive way.

Martin Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of EnergyBiz Magazine. He has written extensively about energy, technology, finance and international business. His freelance work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, Seattle Times, Japan Times and other publications. He and previously was editor-in-chief of Utility Business, a monthly publication that won numerous journalism awards.

This article originally appeared in January/February 2008 issue of EnergyBiz Magazine and was republished with permission from CyberTech, Inc. For more information, please visit www.energybizmag.com.

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