The Danes' shift to renewable, local energy sources have revitalized former textile towns and turned blacksmiths into wind-power entrepreneurs.
Green energy is not only powering Denmark’s homes and appliances, it is powering Denmark’s rural economy.
On Samsø Island, a farming and tourist destination in the Kategat, wind turbines can churn out 13 times the electricity the 4,100 residents need, and farmers are selling their wheat straw to be burned in district heating plants.
On the Jutland Peninsula, manure produced by cattle and pig farms is turned into biogas and mixed into the natural gas in pipelines. And Vestas Wind Systems, the world’s largest wind turbine maker, was founded and maintains factories on Jutland.
Far from taking jobs, green energy is creating jobs in Denmark and, more and more, around the world. Vestas, for example, employs 20,000 people worldwide, many in small towns like Ringkøbing, Denmark, population about 9,300, and headquarters of Vestas Nacelles. (Nacelles are the streamlined housings that hold the inner workings of wind turbines).
“We have created thousands and thousands and thousands of jobs in this sector,” said Connie Hedegaard, Minister for Climate and Energy. Even amid the economic crises of 2008, the Danish export of energy efficient technologies grew by 19 percent last year. “It has tripled over the recent 10 years,” said Hedegaard, “and if you go and see where we have some of those strongholds … they will often be located in rural areas very far from here in Jutland.”
Denmark was forced into green energy production by the oil crisis of 1973. At that time, the nation was 100 percent dependent on foreign energy, with all of its oil coming from the Middle East. The situation became so bad that weekend driving was curtailed, and residents were only allowed to drive on alternating Sundays based on their car license numbers.
Since then, the country has discovered oil and gas reserves in the North Sea and invested heavily in renewable energy sources. Denmark now gets 17 percent of its energy through renewable sources. While it still produces about 60 percent of its electricity from imported coal, it is now a net exporter of energy.
Perhaps surprisingly to Americans, Hedegaard is a member of the Conservative Party; conservative by Danish standards, it is still slightly to the left of most European conservative parties, and far to the left of the U.S. conservative movement. Hedegaard said that the “Greens” in Denmark had created an “anti-growth” agenda. She adheres to another brand of environmentalism, quite the opposite.
“I have been working with this for five years now,” said Hedegaarrd, “and I have tried to turn this into a growth agenda”
She said much of the growth in the green energy sector has been in areas where there had been tremendous job loss in the textile industry. With the help of green energy and conservation measures, Denmark’s current unemployment rate is less than two percent while per capita energy use has declined for the past three decades.
To those who would argue that green energy standards restrict economic growth, Hedegaard answered, “No. We can prove that we have had 30 years of high growth when we kept our energy use stable, and from that we gained money from not pouring it into the Middle East.”
The Danish government has invested in green infrastructure with a variety of programs. One, a contest, funded a community as a pilot for energy planning (Samsø Island won); others have offered tax breaks for using wind energy. The government has also matched money for communities to build biogas facilities and plans 50 new biogas plants by 2020.
But while government has worked to spur local investment in green energy, much of the reason the renewable energy industry has boomed in rural areas is the character those areas. Vestas wind systems, for example, grew out of a firm that company vice president Peter Wenzel Kruse described as “the Danish version of John Deere,” a tractor company based on the West coast of Denmark.
“It was in the windy part of Denmark, which happened to be rural area with a long history of blacksmiths. That was the cradle of entrepreneurism in Denmark, in the back of Jutland,” Kruse said.
That farming background has also helped bring wind energy and biogas production to rural areas. Biogas has flourished in farm country because farmers have to do something to get rid of manure, and sending it to biogas plants is cheaper than any other disposal method available to them.
On Samsø, Danish Energy Academy president Søren Hermansen said farmers were used to investing in expensive pieces of farm equipment and jumped at the chance to buy wind turbines.
For Peter Kruse, the wind power executive, selling communities on wind power is simple.
“What is wind power offering today? We call it an ‘investor’s high five.’ It’s competitive – it’s no more far more expensive than fossil fuels.” In places like Texas, natural gas may be free, “but it won’t last,” Kruse said. Alternatively, wind power “is competitive, it’s independent, it’s local power – it’s up there – and it’s local jobs.”
Journalist and author Sam Adams lives in Letcher County, Kentcuky.