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February 2, 2005

Denmark's wind power success a lesson for NW


Photo by Jim Mueller
Turbines on the Middelgrunden wind farm lie just off the Copenhagen waterfront.

Copenhagen is a city built for humans. It's not just one of the world's great design capitals but one of Europe's most forward-thinking cities.

It's a city that boasts cobbled squares, canals, world class museums, open-air cafes and a pace of life dictated more by pedestrians than cars.

Looking across the city between an impressive collection of 16th, 17th and 18th century copper-spired buildings one sees a sweeping arc of 20 windmills in the harbor. These are not the traditional Danish windmills of childhood stories used to mill corn or pump water. This is a modern wind farm that is producing electrical power.

That crisp, clean Scandinavian air that blows through the narrow, winding streets is also generating electrical energy.

Denmark is an amazing success story when it comes to becoming energy independent. Until the 1970's energy crisis, Denmark was dependent on foreign oil for 98 percent of its energy. But Denmark committed itself to energy independence, through renewable energy and energy efficiency. Today Denmark is a net exporter of energy and renewable energy technology, and the world's leading manufacturer of wind turbine technology

ISS plans tour in May
In 2004, International Sustainable Solutions brought several groups of architects, engineers, developers and others from the Pacific Northwest to Scandinavia to look at advanced urban sustainability projects.

During these trips they visited Copenhagen, Denmark and Malma, Sweden. ISS is taking applications for the next Urban Sustainability Study Group to Sweden and Denmark in May.

For information see http://www.i-sustain.com/.

ISS encourages the sharing of knowledge and the creation of market opportunities for sustainability practices and products.

While Denmark began harvesting wind power in the 1980s, Washington's first wind project did not come on line until 2001. Denmark is about 25 percent the size of Washington, and has 3,115 MW of installed wind power; Washington has 244 MW. According to the Renewable Energy Atlas of the West, Washington has economically viable potential for about 7,100 MW of installed capacity. Why then, one wonders, is Denmark so far ahead of us?

Let's see what we can learn from Denmark's experience. From community-owned wind cooperatives to producing more wind equipment than all other nations combined, Denmark's success with this and other renewable energies is due in part to a commitment to find the most beneficial solution for the most people.

What about NIMBYs?

A critical deterrent to installing wind turbines is opposition from residents near proposed sites. The large size of turbines, noise and their effect on wildlife can be legitimate barriers to approval. U.S. wind farms are typically owned and developed by utilities or large, private developers who can be perceived as "outsiders" trying to exploit local resources.

Denmark cleverly avoided this by promoting wind turbine ownership by cooperatives, requiring that the members/owners live within a certain distance of the site. At one time, nearly 100,000 Danish families owned wind turbines or shares in wind cooperatives. These co-ops are now organized as the Danish Wind Turbine Owners Association.

On a recent sustainability tour, our group was inspired by the Middelgrunden wind farm in the Copenhagen harbor. It is 50 percent owned and financed by a wind co-op of 8,300 members and 50 percent owned by the local utility. The wind farm is located just 1 to 2 miles off the Copenhagen waterfront, and consists of 20 wind turbines at 2 MW each.

During planning, members of the co-op met with interest groups to explain and get support for the site's location and layout. A number of opponents came to embrace wind energy.

Development trends have superseded the critical role of the cooperatives, but they did three things to improve and develop wind turbine technology. In years past, a co-op membership magazine published a list of all Danish turbines, what each turbine produced in a given month, and any technical problems that occurred. This established accountability and had a positive effect on development. It reinforced the importance of appropriate siting. It also established the credibility of wind power and exposed myths about unreliability and cost.

The co-op concept is starting to take place in the Northwest with the Klickitat County Community Wind Project, the first of its kind in Washington. As a result of U.S. Department of Agriculture funding, the Washington-based Last Mile Electric Cooperative and Klickitat County Public Utility District, along with partner Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development, will develop a 300 kW community-owned wind project near Goldendale. This project also will be a model for recycling and re-powering former energy sites.

More lessons

There are several other lessons we can learn from wind energy production in Denmark:

  • Get wind power out of R&D and into the mainstream. Denmark has been gaining real world experience with wind energy for over 20 years, including how to build equipment and integrate wind power into their energy systems. This is starting to happen in Washington. Both Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy recently secured a wind-power program that ensures wind-generated energy through 2020.

  • Utility company concerns. Some utility engineers are concerned that if too much generation comes from wind energy, it will cause instability or even shutdowns. In portions of Denmark's utility grid, 21 percent of the electricity is now generated from wind. In the Northwest, the marriage of wind and hydro is perfect since hydro power can be turned off when there is strong wind generation. One challenge in the Northwest is that our region has insufficient capacity to transfer electricity from areas of good wind resource to the load centers. More than 3,000 MW of potential wind projects are awaiting information on whether there is sufficient capacity for them to connect to the grid.

  • Wind may be successful in an urban environment. The Middelgrunden project shows that siting wind farms in an urban area can be both functionally and aesthetically viable. Typically, cites are not located near the best wind resources because people do not like to live where it's windy! However, Denmark has shown us that wind generation can be an option in some urban areas. Western Washington is not considered to have a high wind resource, but even here there may be small pockets where it is available. Examples include shorelines, on the top of tall urban structures, or places where the wind is funneled into a narrow passage. Generating wind power near urban areas lowers or even eliminates the costs of transmission.

  • Make decisions based on what benefits the most people. Many people who participated in the sustainability tours say this is the most important lesson. People will support an investment that improves the environment and creates jobs, which has been the experience with wind energy in Denmark. Considering the greater good and thinking long term about renewable energy options will benefit the most people. This is why Denmark instituted consistent, long-term energy policies.

It's time for Washington to embrace wind energy. We need to build broad political and grassroots support for the investment. As coal prices rise and natural gas prices fluctuate, utilities are seeing wind power as an attractive way to diversify their supply portfolio.

Once a wind plant is built, it requires no fuel and produces no harmful emissions. In addition, the more wind generation we install, the more we conserve limited natural resources. It's about conserving the earth's resources for the future. Now is the time to invest in wind energy.

Jim Duncan is an electrical engineer who is chairman and CEO of Sparling, an electrical engineering and technology consulting firm with offices in Seattle and Portland. He went on the October 2004 Study Tour and will visit Berlin this year with ISS to study sustainable building technologies and renewable energy.

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