European perspectives

The frontrunner – is Denmark losing its position?

With an exemplary decoupling of declining CO2 emissions and high economic growth, Denmark has become a household name in green technology, sustainable society building, and an energy system that has to date integrated enormous amounts of renewable energy sources. However, recent political developments cast doubt on the green resolve of the country.

by Tore Keller, Danish Freelance Journalist

The motivation for the Danish green energy leap derives from the oil crisis in the 1970s where the Danish civil society and political system were shocked by the extent of dependency on foreign energy imports. The Danes decided to rid themselves of this dependency and take another path.

The first move was to engage in comprehensive oil and gas research projects in the North Sea, to roll out large-scale energy plans for district heating using excess heating from power plants and an enhanced network for the use of natural gas.

The Danes chose to focus on renewable energy, mainly wind energy, and eventually opting out of nuclear power after intense political discussions during a period of huge rallies against nuclear power in Copenhagen in the 1970s. Denmark still imports nuclear energy from Sweden and Germany during periods of low domestic energy production, but the general political agenda does not see nuclear power as a viable option.

It was not until the UN’s Brundtland commission’s climate report in 1987 that climate policy and environmental concerns started playing a major role in shaping Danish energy policy. However, in 1989, Denmark became the first country in the world to create legislation aimed at curbing CO2-emissions and since then, climate policy has been at the center of Danish energy policy. The current plan is to have a fossil free energy system by 2050. This ambition will require innovation, new technology, enormous investments and political will combined with backing from civil society and business.

Make no mistake though – Denmark today is still reliant on oil, coal and gas. The cars are not running on flowers and fairy dust. Was it not for the North Sea oil fields, the Danish story might have looked very different. Since the 1990s, the oil and gas driven from the sea bed north of Denmark have made the Danes self-sufficient regarding oil and gas, while simultaneously boosting the Danish economy.

Exports of oil and gas, high taxes on energy and a political consensus has made the many offshore wind farms in the sea surrounding Denmark feasible in the later years. Denmark has a political target of reaching a 35 percent share renewables in electricity in 2020 – in 2050 the goal is to remove all fossil fuels from the energy system.

These are ambitious targets paid for by consumers through energy taxes, which all households and companies pay. The revenue is put into renewable energy projects, such as the Horns Rev III off shore wind farm situated off the coast of western Jutland. It is the third wind farm in the area and will, once operating in 2019, produce enough green energy to sustain 400.000 households with a total production of 400 MW in addition to the 370 MW produced by its two older brothers Horns Rev I+II.

In addition to the Horns Rev wind farm, Denmark will build a 600 MW wind farm in Kriegers Flak in the waters between Denmark, Sweden and Germany. Political developments in 2015 cast a shadow of doubt on the Kriegers Flak project. The Public Service Obligation tariff that has helped to finance many of the renewable energy projects in Denmark was deemed illegal by the European Commission because it favored domestic projects. The new government that took office in 2015 had floated the idea of cancelling projects including the Kriegers Flak project due to funding issues. But in November of 2016, Vattenfall won the tender to build the wind farm, with a then-historically low bid of €49.90/MWh.

It is clear that Denmark has chosen its renewable energy source number one: Wind power. In 2016, more than 42 percent of electricity consumption came from wind energy. Danish businesses are on board too. In 2016, energy technology exports accounted for 11.3 billion EUR – roughly 12 percent of Danish exports altogether. In 2014 these exports created 56,000 jobs, according to the Danish Energy Association. From 1990 to 2007, economic activity in Denmark increased by more than 40 percent, while CO2 emissions decreased by nearly 14 percent. In addition to support from business, almost all of the Danish political parties back the long-term energy policy for 2020. A nuclear-free energy policy thus meets a broad political consensus since the oil crisis in the 1970s.

Not all is idyllic in Denmark though. The classical tale of the “not in my backyard” is still an existing concern in green Denmark. When a test site for wind turbines on land was established in a remote nature area called Osterild in the rural countryside a couple of years ago, local citizens protested its construction, stating that they supported renewable energy but arguing that it should be placed elsewhere. Eventually, the test site was built despite the protests. Recently, the placement of off-shore turbines close to the coast has met resistance from citizens.

However, the fraction of Danes opposing the shift towards a sustainability-focused society, independent from foreign energy imports from the Middle East and Russia, remains small. Green policies have a broad backing even though Danes, as most other people, would like to see their energy bills decrease.

Recent projects researching the possibility of shale gas extraction in rural areas have met local opposition. The concern is mainly about security and the scale of a possible shale gas venture in people’s backyards. This has held back shale gas explorations. However, the government that came into power after the general elections in 2015 has taken a more open approach to shale gas projects.

Although Denmark has done well to diminish its impact on the world’s climate and has seen an extensive rise in green energy, Danes are maybe not as green as they seem. A report from the WWF shows that Danes are the fourth most polluting people on the planet if one includes the impact from its foreign imports, ranging from extensive holiday travel to the agricultural sector, which remains less regulated than other industries.

However, the Danes have taken up the climate issue locally. The island of Samsoe is 100 percent fossil free. Community projects are organized in wind turbine cooperatives, which usually have 1-3 wind turbines on land next to smaller towns or industrial areas. They can be found all over the country. Some 40,000 Danes are part-owners or individual owners of some of the more than 5200 wind turbines in Denmark.

Denmark was forced on the green path by high energy prices in the 1970s and has shown the world that with an extensive forward energy planning, incentives for green energy and a supportive population, it is possible to decrease the dependence on fossil fuels. Germany, too, is attempting to decouple its GDP with fossil fuel consumption – the Danes just got there first. The next couple of years' policies from the new government will determine if Denmark will be able to stay ahead or lose its position as the leader of the green pack.