Denmark shows its green pragmatism

Denmark may have electric canal boats for the tourists, and wind turbines off its shore, but coal, gas, and oil still play a large part in how the country really produces electricity.

COPENHAGEN--Denmark is known to many for its progressive architecture, functional design, and leadership in wind and renewable energy. (Not to mention its Michelin-starred Noma restaurant.) But given the country's green reputation, how much of Denmark's electricity would you suppose is provided by wind turbines? By renewable energy in general?

If you guessed 50 percent--or even 30 percent--you'd be wrong. And so was I--even after years of reading and writing about Denmark and its green technology.

Given my longtime intrigue with Denmark's progressive energy policy and stake in gas, oil, and wind power, I decided to visit the country and tour with an eye for how this country powers itself.

Countries looking to Denmark for energy advice will want to note that its vast success is due in large part to pragmatism. While it has shown more foresight than other countries by implementing energy policy changes early on, it's also allowed the actual switch toward renewables to take place at a relatively slow pace. It's progression away from coal has taken four decades and it will take another four decades to be complete.

By researching the country's energy policy, its history of electricity regulatory reform, and its most recent report from the Danish Energy Agency, I discovered some interesting facts:

•In 2009, 18.9 percent of the Danish domestic electricity supply was produced from oil and natural gas, 19.3 from wind power, and 9.1 from various other renewables including biomass waste. The rest was from coal. None was generated from nuclear energy.

•Geography, natural resources, and public policy in Denmark combine to make it unique from many countries--not just because of the oil and gas fields it discovered in 1966 and has been producing from since 1972.

•In addition to exporting the oil and gas, Denmark also uses a combination of oil, gas, coal, and renewables to produce electricity and sell it to nearby countries. The country has multiple isolated electric grids used for both the import and export of electricity, due to its multi-island/European mainland geography.

•In 1985, the country passed legislation to cease and outlaw the use of nuclear energy. The last of its three preexisting plants ceased operation in 2001. Instead, the country decided to heavily develop wind technology both for its own needs, and as an exportable industry.

•Coal has been the dominant fuel for producing both domestic and exported electricity in Denmark. As recently as 1990, Denmark still got just 1.9 percent of its electricity from wind. Oil, gas, and renewables together--including wind--only accounted for 8.7 percent of electricity production. The rest, over 90 percent, was still from coal. Denmark slowly and steadily continued to change that ratio, achieving 49 percent from coal in 2009.

•In 2009, Denmark was also the only country in the European Union that was self-sufficient in terms of total energy production. Collectively, Denmark's energy self-sufficiency was at 124 percent for 2009, meaning it produced and sold 24 percent more energy than it consumed. That's a significant and steady change since the country was only at 52 percent self-sufficiency in 1990, and 5 percent in 1980.

•The country has been self-sufficient in oil since 1993. In 2009, the degree of self-sufficiency was 175 percent, meaning that Denmark exported 75 percent more oil than it used, according to the Danish Energy Agency.

But all that is about to change drastically.

If the country's latest energy plan is passed and followed in the years to come, Denmark will eventually use no fossil fuels for electricity or even heating.

In February, Climate and Energy Minister Lykke Friis unveiled Energy Strategy 2050, a plan to reduce Denmark's use of fossil fuels--coal, gas, or oil--to 33 percent by 2020 and to zero by 2050.

Her plan includes using a combination of wind, biomass, and biogas. Wind would be used to produce 40 percent of Denmark's electricity needs. And a ramp-up of biogas production, by switching from natural gas to biogas in particular, would be required for heating needs. Electricity made from coal, meanwhile, would be replaced with power produced from biomass.

While Denmark has already managed to shrink its coal dependency from 90 percent to 49 percent within four decades, going to zero within the next four decades even to a Dane might seem drastic. The Danish energy minister says the plan is simply pragmatic.

"No one is saying that carrying out major investments in energy efficiency and expanding our use of renewable energy is going to be free," Friis said in her statement. "But the alternative--continued dependence on fossil fuels--will, as all signs indicate, only become more expensive in the years to come. Converting to renewable energy will shield Denmark from the effects of increasing energy prices."

Coming next: Copenhagen, a city of SUV cyclists

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