Denmark: Green Energy Leaders for the Future

During the 1973 Oil Embargo, the world found themselves incredibly vulnerable to the under-supply of fossil fuels. Denmark was importing 90% of their energy at the time and made the brave and forward-thinking decision to never be so vulnerable again. They spent the next forty years making “progressive reforms-aimed first at securing supply and later at decarbonizing the economy.”

         At first, to secure supply, they turned to the North Sea for oil and gas exploration and established a state operated natural gas transmission and distribution program. They also addressed energy efficiency and made significant progress in district heating. In the second phase, Denmark aimed towards decarbonization, introducing an energy plan that included CO2 reduction targets, a moratorium on new coal-fired plants, more efficiency standards and a wide range of taxes on the public and private corporations to continue to pay for the transformation. In the 21st century, they established the Danish CO2 Emissions Trading System, which “sets total quotas for CO2 emissions from electricity production, introduces emission allowances for the individual power companies and allows for emissions trading and banking.” The Danes invested heavily in offshore wind turbines, offering market based incentives to facilitate the transition, is continuing to reduce GHG emissions and is fourth in Europe for having renewable energy available for internal consumption, with 31.2% of their energy mix coming from green sources.

         The 2018 Danish New Energy Agreement reported that since 1980, Denmark had succeeded in lowering CO2 emissions by 40% while the GDP went up by an incredible 90%. The population was rewarded with a much improved, healthier and less expensive society. Medical and education costs are covered by the state and urban infrastructure has been modified to encourage cycling. In Copenhagen, where there are six bicycles for every car, they are aiming for twenty-three municipalities serviced by forty-five routes covering 746 kilometers of cycle-superhighway. To accommodate cyclists further, mass transportation, especially the trains, have made ample room for citizens to bring their bikes on board without sacrificing seating. The Office of Cycle Superhighways states that “92% less CO2 emissions when changing from [a] car to [a] bike” which means saving “1,500 tons of CO2” from being emitted. The report predicts that as pollution goes down and people exercise more, there will be “40,000 fewer days of sick leave annually.”

To enhance their cycling structure, the Danish public-private partnership, State of Green, the Union Cycliste Internationale and the Cycling Embassy of Denmark have launched an online knowledge-sharing platform that focuses on many positive benefits of cycling, the cost benefit analysis, ideas on urban and local planning, public transport, parking and designing better infrastructure and especially points out in their recommendations that: “A strong bicycle culture requires long-term political commitment and priority. Cycling will only become attractive to the broad population if it is prioritized politically. So, decision-makers at local, regional, and national levels need to work strategically and continuously on improving conditions for cyclists by prioritizing space, funding, investments and legislative measures that benefit cycling.”

One thing that has been and continues to be integral to success, is that the Danish government, which has twelve parties have been traditionally supportive and with the last election in 2019, is unanimous in the fight against climate change as well as maintaining its leadership role in the environment and its pivot towards a circular economy.  The state government has great experience with this through the transformation of the Danish Oil and Natural Gas, which helped Denmark to secure energy supply into the global wind energy leader, Ørsted, which has divested from oil, gas and coal and plans to have “operations and energy generation be carbon neutral by 2025, build more than 30GW of green energy across technologies – enough to power more than 50 million people by 2030 and achieve a carbon neutral footprint a decade ahead of the 1.5oC pathway by driving out remaining emissions from energy trading and from the supply chain.” Ørsted, which is now only 51% owned by the state, recently won a major wind contract in New Jersey, called Ocean Wind. It is “expected to generate enough electricity to power 500,000 New Jersey homes. It will also generate $1.17 billion in economic benefits and create 15,000 jobs,” said New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso. The project should be completed by 2024.

         Another advance the Danes have made that is being studied for use in water bound New York City, is flood mitigation. In 2011, the city of Copenhagen was drenched by a microburst that flooded homes and business so badly that the city partnered with engineers to rebuild the drainage system adding trenches and sinks to prevent a future flood from having the same or worse effect. The Danish company Rambøll completed a study on the subject for New York City, which stated “the NYC Cloudburst Resiliency Planning Study was inspired by the successful Copenhagen Cloudburst Masterplans, which formalized a planning approach for integrating green infrastructure for extreme stormwater management into the urban planning practices. The purpose of the study was to analyze best-available data related to NYC rainfall and storm surges, recommend methodologies for incorporating findings into ongoing resiliency planning initiatives, and identify best practices for considering climate change in future neighborhood-specific planning studies.” A project at the New York City Housing Authority’s South Jamaica complex was under way in 2018 based on the findings of that report.

One of the most successful green energy installations in Copenhagen is the Amager Resource Center, or ARC, the waste to energy plant in the heart of town. It is a publicly owned, full scale sorting facility that is, as I learned on a site visit, in the waste prevention business rather than just disposal. In Copenhagen, only 6% of the trash ends up in the landfill, the remainder is either recycled or burned for energy for district heating and cooling. 150,000 homes in Copenhagen use district heating, with the source being prevalent in two thirds of households nationally. The plant is exceptionally clean, emits only steam and doesn’t produce any noxious fumes. The building itself is in-line with Scandinavian design, with full function to its form, hosts a rock-climbing wall and ski slope that is open to the public year-round. The slope is fitted with special flexible material that can handle extreme heat and will provide a comfortable landing for anyone who mis-skis. It cohabits very well in its neighborhood, merely walking distance from one of the world’s top restaurants and its produce filled greenhouse, NOMA. As ARC’s main mission sits on an environmental platform of shared knowledge and innovation, all of ARC’s revenue goes directly back into research.

Sally Barr