Note: This article was originally a panel in Richard Douthwaite’s book Short Circuit, published in 1996. You can read the whole book online here.
When OPEC tripled world oil prices in 1979, the Lauritsen family who live in a rural area just outside Aarhus in Denmark, wondered what they should do. “As we used oil to heat our house, we looked for ways in which we could save money and, maybe, help the nation too” Per Lauritsen says. “96% of Denmark’s electricity was being generated from oil at the time.”
There were not too many options to consider. There was no firewood they could cut on their property and Lauritsen , who is an architect, had designed his family’s house to be energy efficient and to make good use of the sun. So the wind, which blows almost unchecked off the North Sea across the low-lying Jutland peninsula, seemed to be the best possibility, particularly as a long series of experiments in the area had shown windpower’s feasibility. Eighty-eight years previously, in 1891, for example, the ‘Danish Edison’, a folk high school teacher called Poul la Cour, had become the first person in the world to use wind electricity for lighting and heating, although so unreliable and costly were the carbon filament light bulbs available at the time that he had had to electrolyse water and pipe the hydrogen this produced to gaslights in his school in Askov, a village in south Jutland, and to the village itself.
|The three couples who pioneered wind energy in Denmark, with their turbine in early 1996. From the left, are Aage and Erna Sørenson, Inge-Lise and Per Lauritsen and Hans and Mary Vangkilde. “If the picture had been taken in 1980, there would have been nine children as well,” Per Lauritsen says.|
The two world wars and the depression of the early 1930s had stimulated further experiments and, by 1944, some reasonably reliable and productive wind-powered generating sets had become commercially available. After the war, however, as soon as normal coal and oil imports became possible again, the market for this equipment disappeared, just as it did for a small British turbine produced at the time, the Lucas Freelight. But the lessons of the war had not been lost on the Danish electricity distribution companies who, after further research, built an experimental wind turbine in the mid 1950s with government support. This was sited at Gedser on the Falster peninsula which stretches into the Baltic at the far south of Denmark. It had worked well and produced 400,000 kWh a year from its 200kW generator and 24-metre sails until it was closed in 1962 after accountants pointed out that its output was twice as expensive as that from a conventional station.
As a result of the Gedser turbine’s ‘failure’, the Danish government ignored the possibility of windpower development when the cheap energy bubble burst during the first OPEC crisis in 1973. Instead, it gave its atomic energy research establishment, Risø, extra funds. As a result, although Risø opened a test station for windturbines in 1976, it was largely left to a few individuals to try to commercialise them. One of these pioneers was a carpenter in west Jutland, Christian Risager, who built a 22kW machine with a 12m high tower and blades made from glass reinforced plastic. This met all the local electricity company’s requirements and, although many obstacles were placed in his way, he was eventually able to couple it to the national grid.
Risager and his wife, Boe, set up a company in 1978 to manufacture the turbines and by the time the Lauritsens became interested in wind energy, about twelve of the Risager machines had been erected around the country. Unfortunately, though, these turbines proved very unreliable and claims for damages from the twelve owners, who had grouped themselves together in an association, Danske Vindkraftvaerker (Danish Windpower Stations), drove the couple out of business. Nevertheless, the Risagers had shown what could be done and other manufacturers entered the market.
The Lauritsens suggested to their neighbours, the Bangkildes, who are teachers, and the Sorensens, who are farmers, that the three families should jointly buy a turbine to meet their energy needs and that any surplus electricity should be sold to the grid. “We had good relations with our neighbours and shared a snow-plough with them” Inger-Lise Lauritsen says. A lot of money was involved – 350,000Kr, about £35,000, or £12,000 per family for a 55kW machine – and although both the other families needed loans secured on their properties to raise this, they said they would go ahead.
The local electricity company – Denmark has 110 regional power distributors – was much less enthusiastic. In fact, it said quite categorically that there was no question of its accepting their power. It took political lobbying, a debate in the Folketting (parliament) and the direct intervention of the Minister for Energy before the grid connection was made.
But at what price, and on what basis was their power to be purchased? “All previous wind turbines had been owned either by companies or by individuals. Ours was the first needing a connection which was owned by a group of people who wanted to use some of its power for themselves” Per Lauritsen says. “It took two years of negotiations but the agreement we reached has formed the basis of all subsequent group connections. Essentially, we delivered all the power we produced to the public network, for which we were paid 85% of the household price and we bought back all the electricity we needed at the full price. We used the public network to bring the power to our homes.”
This agreement opened the floodgates. Per was almost overwhelmed by people telephoning to ask him to help them set up their own turbines. He joined Danske Vindkraftvaerker (DV) and was elected to the committee. “I lost him to the movement” Inger-Lise says. A total of 377 turbines were installed in 1979 and 1980 and windpower guilds were set up all over the country, drawing on a rural co-operative tradition which is very similar to that in Ireland.
“The only limitation was that all members of a guild had to live in the same electricity supply area and within 3km. of its turbine” says Flemming Tranæs, DV’s chairman in 1993. “The idea was that if anyone in the area around the turbine suffered any inconvenience from it, it should be those who enjoyed its advantages. Well-to-do people from the cities were not to be allowed to invest in turbines and gain the advantage of cheaper electricity without being affected by any noise or visual disturbance at the turbine sites. This approach fits in well with the co-operative idea that you establish your enterprise in the area where you live and among the people with whom you share your life, for good or bad.”
Everyone connected with wind energy in Denmark – and DV had over 9,100 members at the end of 1995 – believes that had the Lauritsen group not been able to negotiate such favourable terms, windpower guilds would not have developed and the Danish wind energy industry would have been far less successful. In 1994, Denmark held 40% of the world market for wind turbines and generated 4% of its electricity from the wind, two-thirds of which came from collectively-owned machines.
Certainly, the emergence of the guilds – which are partnerships rather than co-ops because Danish law does not allow the members of a co-operative to set the interest they pay on its loans against their personal income tax – was a crucial factor in generating political support for the development of windpower. The first fruit of this was the adoption by the Folketting of the 1981 Energy Plan, which gave the green light to wind power by making grants covering one-third of an installation’s cost available for the first time.
In 1984, the grants were replaced by a subsidy of 15.5 ore (1.5p) plus VAT for every kWh supplied to the grid. As a result, the buying price in 1994 was between 60 and 65 ore per kWh, depending on the price of power to the consumer price in the area in which the turbine was located. This was equivalent to roughly 6.5p per unit, and included a 27 ore (2.7p) state subsidy. According to Johannes Poulsen, the managing director of Vestas, Denmark’s and the world’s largest turbine manufacturer, this price was enough to give a 15% return on the capital invested.
Not everything as plain sailing, however, because some power companies charged unreasonable amounts to connect turbines to their grid and cut the payments for the power they bought by deducting the fixed charge that would have been payable if a wind turbine had been an electric motor of the same capacity. When DV published a report on these abuses in 1984, the government announced it would introduce a law governing the relationships between turbine operators and power companies. This was the last thing the power companies wanted and they hastily offered DV a ten-year agreement under which grid connection costs were shared between utility and producer and the buying price was paid with no deductions.
“The resistance of the electricity companies to wind power arose because they were opposed to anything which could prevent them using nuclear energy” says Flemming Tranæs. “They wanted central management of electricity production. Turbine owners can tell incredible stories about the way power companies did whatever they could to prevent the erection of wind turbines. However, our association got as much press coverage for these cases as possible and gradually the politicians and the public came to see that the companies were determined to carry through their own energy policy, not that of the government or parliament. After the 1984 agreement, however, on the whole, things went well. Nevertheless we deliberately selected May 4th, the anniversary of Denmark’s liberation from Nazi occupation, as the date of DV’s foundation because of the level of official mistrust and resistance the concept of wind energy met.”
The guilds also played an important role in ensuring turbine quality. “There were a number of confrontations between the association and some of the first manufacturers in the market” says Flemming Tranæs. “Some wanted to make money quickly, others had products that were simply not good enough. In two cases, after long unsuccessful negotiations, we had to expose firms in the monthly trade magazine Naturlig Energi and in both cases the businesses ceased trading shortly afterwards.”
Having the association behind them certainly helped the Lauritsens. In 1981, they learned that that blades had broken off at least two machines of the same model as theirs. “We stopped ours for fear that someone would be hurt until the makers, Vestas, came and fitted new blades free” Inger-Marie says. Then, in 1985, their turbine’s brakes and gearbox gave trouble, so Vestas bought the machine back at the price they had paid in part exchange for a new model. “It suited Vestas to get it back to preserve their reputation. They used it for research” Per comments.
Today, Naturlig Energi publishes a 19-page performance table each month for the majority of the turbines installed in Denmark. As this shows the amount of electricity each installation has produced and states whether there have been any technical problems, it naturally keeps manufacturers on their toes. “It’s certainly harmed the sales of firms who promise people wonders but cannot back their claims up with actual data for their product on a good, windy site. The table also decisively demonstrates the importance of siting turbines well” Tranæs says.
How have the Lauritsens, the Bangkildes and the Sorensens fared financially as a result of owning their own turbine? “It’s difficult to say we’ve made money” Per Lauritsen says, although he agrees they have definitely had lower heating bills. This is because they use almost three-quarters of their installation’s 120,000 kWh annual output themselves: the Lauritsens took out their oil-fired central heating and replaced it with an electrically-driven heat pump system which they share with the Bangkildes, while the Sorensens have electric water-filled radiators. This level of consumption is much above average: normally 1,000 kWh would be taken as sufficient electricity to meet one person’s domestic needs for a year.
There is no doubt, however, that installing the turbine changed the Lauritsens’ lives. In 1983, Per and a friend, Ole Johansen, submitted a successful proposal to the Danish Energy Commission for grant aid for the construction of a wind farm to demonstrate Danish turbines to foreign buyers. The farm, which won the partners the 1985 Energy Prize, now has 45 turbines worth around £3m producing sufficient power for around 8,000 people. In 1992, a third partner, Jorgen Dinesen, joined them in opening a windpark grant-aided by the EC near Sines in Portugal. Each turbine there is computer-controlled and Per regularly monitors their performance on his PC in his office at home.
The windpower movement has done well too. At the end of 1995, DV’s members owned 2,090 turbines, almost two-thirds of the Danish total, and there were 52,500 people in the turbine guilds associated with it, although many wind guilds were not. Flemming Tranaes is worried however. “The idealists as a percentage are getting fewer and fewer. In many new guilds which are being established, enthusiasm for working in a co-operative in your local community and the environmental benefits of windpower are no longer so important. What makes people get involved today is the prospect of a good investment and a reasonable rate of return.”
Looked at from another perspective, however, these changes merely indicate that wind energy in Denmark is no longer the exclusive preserve of idealistic enthusiasts and has ceased to be a fringe activity. It has entered the mainstream and is successful and mature.
Updates by Caroline Whyte
2002: According to Torgny Møller of Windpower Monthly magazine, ” the total number of turbines [in Denmark] today should be about 6,000 and approx. 17 per cent of the electricity used in the country is delivered by them”. Projections show that by next year 21 per cent of electricity will be produced by wind power, out of a total of 27 per cent produced by renewable energy. Approximately 20,000 people are now employed in wind-energy related jobs in Denmark. Over 100,000 Danish families now hold shares in wind guilds, which own eighty-five per cent of the country’s turbines.(Source: Sarah MacDonald, Sunday Independent, Nov 3rd 2002.)
May 2004: A study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US outlines the development of community-owned wind projects there. The study authors speculate that these projects may be reaching a “tipping point” beyond which they will spread more widely in the US. A brief report on the study can be read at the Solar Access website, at http://solaraccess.com/news/story?storyid=6675, and the study itself is at http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/EMS/cases/community_wind.pdf (PDF document).
June 2014: In the Irish Journal, Paul Kenny describes how Danish wind energy investments work and asks “Wouldn’t it be better to adopt the Danish model and deliver the value back to the community surrounding the wind farm (or any renewable energy project) rather than just to external developers?”
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