Contrary to the United States, Denmark has followed a steady path over the last four decades, focusing first on energy independence, followed by the implementation of renewables. The Danish Energy Example emphasizes that by “persistent and active energy policy focus[ed] on enhanced energy efficiency, it is possible to sustain high economic growth and at the same time reduce fossil fuel dependency and protect the environment.” The oil crises in the 1970s, when Denmark was almost entirely dependent on foreign sources, lead the country to formulate definitive energy policies.
One of the lynch pins of the Danish transformation has been a focus on efficiency and using combined heat and power (CHP). During the 1970s and 1980s, most Danish municipalities created their own energy plans. The 1986 Co-generated Heat and Electricity Agreement prioritized CHP – meaning that the excess heat from power generation was used to heat buildings and homes in cities, towns and villages. CHP reaches around 80% efficiency using any fuel source. Today, there are CHP operations that use trash, biomass, solar, wind, geothermal and even some that still use natural gas or coal. Across Denmark, a wide variety of renewables provide a flexible network both in urban and rural areas. Straw burners have been used on farms to heat buildings for decades. More recently, recycled vegetable oil, canola and other kinds of biomass have also gained popularity.
The stage is now set for the next generation of clean energy policies, established in the Agreement of 2012. Denmark anticipates that 70% of its power will be generated by renewables by 2020. And the agreement outlines 62 actions in the various energy sectors, with a goal of creating an economy free of fossil fuels by 2050. This goal is not dependent on new technology, but it does rely on continuous innovation. For example, the first tiny wind turbines are still running in Jutland alongside the monster 10 megawatt turbines now being tested. While transportation (i.e. cars and trucks) are still problematic, a high tax on cars consuming a great deal of gasoline makes for cars obtaining 40-60 miles per gallon. There is also no tax on electric vehicles to encourage their adoption.
Consistent policy – from the 1970s until today – is significantly responsible for Denmark’s clean energy progress. A majority of parties and various Danish governments have joined in support – amazing by American standards since, at times, Denmark has had about 25 parties in parliament and currently consists of nine parties after the election in June of 2015. Moreover, Danish companies quickly adopted greater energy efficiency and renewable sources. With several companies in the wind industry coming from the agriculture sector (including Vestas), the drive for renewables also helped Denmark transition from agriculture to green industry – although it must be noted that there are still five times more pigs than people. In the economic downturn, renewable energy exports ameliorated the negative impact on Denmark. Danish companies have a global competitive advantage in green products because they embraced, rather than fought, innovation.
Finally, during these four decades, Denmark’s economic growth rate has keep pace with other industrialized countries – but Denmark has a cleaner environment and is positioned to be fossil fuel free in 35 years.