Why is Denmark the poster child for renewable energy?

22 Nov 2019

Image: © Lulla/Stock.adobe.com

As Ireland struggles to get near its renewable energy targets, we look at what Denmark has done to become a world leader.

While it’s common for Ireland to look across the Irish Sea to Scotland as a land we share a lot of commonalities with, arguably our closest lookalike may be the Nordic nation of Denmark. We have similar population sizes (between 4m and 6m) and we’re both big agricultural nations with temperate climates and a hankering for bacon.

Not only that, the two nations are also often battered by regular strong winds on our shores. Yet despite these similarities, one nation has become a world leader in wind energy, while the other is one of Europe’s renewable energy laggard.

Just to give some examples, last year Denmark achieved a 35pc emissions reduction with plans to double this to 70pc by the end of the next decade. Meanwhile, Ireland will definitely miss its 2020 target – which will see the country fined millions of euro – and the country is facing a huge challenge of making its agreed 2030 target of a 30pc reduction as well.

Why has one excelled while the other flounders? I recently spoke with Kristine van het Erve Grunnet, managing director of renewable energy at state agency Danish Energy, who was able to tie the country’s wind turbine production boom to the 1970s. She was a speaker at a recent conference exploring future energy, organised by the Institute of International and European Affairs.

She said that even in the 1970s – decades before the full extent of the climate crisis became common knowledge – a need to diversify as a result of the famous oil crisis and action from Denmark’s politicians laid the groundwork for what it has achieved today.

By 2020, the country wanted to have 30pc of its electricity sourced from renewables. Yet by 2014, it had almost reached this target, having jumped by 23pc in less than a decade, and is today one of Europe’s renewable energy leaders.

While much of this has been led by onshore wind, Erve Grunnet said that the Danish government is aiming to move out to sea with a number of large-scale offshore wind energy projects, starting with plans for 2,400MW of capacity by 2030.

“There’s a lot of employment within [the wind industry], which also meant that green energy is something that is very important to the Danish economy,” she said.

“Those things together also mean that the politicians have been very willing to make stable, long agreements to support renewable energy and that’s both onshore, but especially offshore.”

The year things changed

The year 2009 is seen as an instrumental moment in Denmark’s renewables revolution, with 116MW of new capacity being erected onshore and 238 MW offshore in that year alone.

This was attributed to a major shake-up in support schemes for windfarms with grid connections financed by electricity consumers, and special tariffs based on competitive tenders.

Now the race is on towards achieving that target of 70pc CO2 emissions reduction on 1990 levels within the next decade. This “extremely ambitious target”, Erve Grunnet said, is going to be made even harder by the fact that the existing Danish renewables infrastructure cannot produce this. What’s required will be mass expansion into offshore wind along the country’s coasts and fundamental changes to how it uses its coasts.

“When we look at shipping lanes, do they have to be as wide as they are today, or can we do different things? When we look into oil and gas interests, maybe it’s not going to be the future, so should offshore wind get priority instead of those other interests?” she said.

More than a dozen offshore wind turbines in a row beside a small island.

Offshore windfarm in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Denmark. Image: © Nigel/Stock.adobe.com

Ireland’s ‘obligation’ for clean energy

Of course, a massive surge in renewable energy is all well and good, but it means nothing if there isn’t a developed grid infrastructure behind it.

In that regard, Denmark is already pretty well equipped since those days following the oil crisis. Now, it boasts one of the most reliable, stable smart grids in the world with full support for not only an increase in large-scale renewable energy, but for communities and individual homes to pump their own clean energy into the grid.

“In the future, we need regional cooperation, to a large extent, among [Scandinavia, the British Isles and the Baltics] so wind parks can connect to a pipeline in the sea and that would provide energy, and even hydrogen, in existing gas and oil pipes,” Erve Grunnet said.

“This is what we have to start looking at now and be ready for 2050, or else we won’t be able to make the transition [to zero emissions].”

This may be something easier said than done, and especially when it comes to Ireland – a nation where wind energy potential is supposedly ‘there for the taking’ – we’ve been very slow off the starting block.

Now, Erve Grunne believes that as much as Denmark should continue its work in renewables, Ireland has an “obligation” to use what nature has given the country.

“It’s not too late,” she said. “The industry is global now and is starting to look into Ireland as a future market … There’s a lot to be learned from Denmark, but also from Nordic collaborations.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic