Inside Clean Energy: Denmark Makes the Most of its Brief Moment at the Climate Summit

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At the climate summit last week, Denmark’s prime minister spoke about a clean energy island, and it wasn’t a metaphor.

Her country is building an island that could ultimately supply 10 gigawatts of renewable energy, which, for perspective, would be enough to serve nearly all of New England on a mild spring afternoon, a massive scale for one project.

The idea might seem like a stretch, except that Denmark has already shown itself to be a global leader in clean energy. This nation of 5.8 million residents gets a larger share of its electricity from wind than any other country, and it has one of the most aggressive carbon-reduction targets in the world, aiming to cut emissions by 70 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.

“Imagine you’re flying across the North Sea,” said Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, speaking in a four-minute slot on the second day of the summit. “Hundreds of wind turbines appear on the horizon. As you get closer, you spot an island. An island creating clean electricity.”

The artificial island would receive electricity from surrounding offshore wind farms, store some of it in batteries, and send most of it to population centers in Denmark and other countries through undersea power lines. The location, miles from shore, is an essential part of the plan because the wind is stronger and steadier away from land.

Before I saw renderings of the island, I had visions of a James Bond villain headquarters, but the plan looks like a regular industrial site that just happens to be in the middle of the sea. The preliminary design shows a large concrete pad, about the size of 20 football fields, with moorings for ships to service the wind turbines, trailer-like containers for battery storage and boxy buildings for offices.

The island and its adjacent wind farm would have an initial capacity of 3 gigawatts, with the capability to later expand to about 10 gigawatts. Those are big numbers considering that the entire country of Denmark had about 6 gigawatts of wind farm capacity in 2020, including onshore and offshore projects.

Denmark ranks well behind China, the United States and others in wind energy generation, because it is such a small country in terms of electricity demand. But Denmark leads the world in the share of its electricity that comes from wind, with more than 50 percent, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Lithuania is next with 39 percent. The United States has 7 percent.

From the vantage point of the United States, Denmark and its Scandanavian neighbors often look like a policy paradise, where the clean energy transition is ahead of schedule. For example, I wrote in February about how Norway has become a global leader in adoption of electric vehicles.

Denmark has an especially compelling story to tell. The country responded to the 1970s oil crisis by implementing policies to decentralize its energy system and improve energy efficiency, as researchers described in a 2015 report by Agora Energiewende. In 1991, Denmark was the site of the world’s first offshore wind farm.

More recently, Denmark has shown how to integrate high levels of wind energy into a reliable electricity grid and do so in weather that is often extremely cold.

The growth of wind energy has helped to turn the company, formerly called Danish Oil and Natural Gas, into a global leader in offshore wind. The company sold off its oil and gas operations in 2017 and changed its name to Ørsted.

Denmark’s government is continuing to lead in the energy transition, with legislation last year that ended exploration for new oil and gas drilling in the North Sea and canceled an upcoming licensing process for new oil and gas leases. The legislation also says that oil and gas production from existing North Sea leases must end by 2050.

The country’s leaders say their plan to build energy islands is an important part of making the transition to net-zero emissions.

The plan begins with two projects, one with an artificial island in the North Sea and one on an existing island in the Baltic Sea.

This is an image from the Danish government of what the proposed “clean energy island” off of Denmark might look like, with an offshore wind farm in the background. Credit: Danish Energy Agency

The artificial island would cost about $34 billion and would begin construction in 2026, according to an agreement reached in Denmark’s parliament in February. The government would own 51 percent of the project and recruit private developers to serve as partners.

The island would be located about 50 miles west of Thorsminde, a town on the coast of Jutland, which is Denmark’s main peninsula.

So if you missed the very short speech by Prime Minister Frederiksen last week, this is what she was talking about, an idea that shows some of the opportunities for offshore clean energy at a time when the world needs to think a lot more like Denmark if it wants to reach its climate goals.


Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

Pledges at Climate Summit Still Fall Short of What’s Needed: World leaders gathered for a virtual climate summit hosted by the United States last week, with many of them announcing new details of their carbon-cutting plans. But, as Inside Climate News reports, the pledges fall short of what many scientists say is needed, and there are plenty of reasons to doubt that some countries are serious about meeting their goals. The United States made news going into the summit by announcing that it is setting a new target of cutting emissions by 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. To meet the new goal, the United States will need to substantially accelerate the transition to clean energy in all sectors.

A New Way to Track Utilities’ Carbon-Cutting Progress: RMI has put together an interactive website that allows users to obtain data about utilities’ emissions and electricity generation. The Utility Transition Hub went live this week along with a new report from RMI about the challenges and opportunities for the United States to make deep cuts in emissions by 2030, as Jeff St. John reports for Canary Media. The idea behind the Utility Transition Hub is to bring together several data sources to allow anyone to see how a utility is performing in terms of its finances and environmental indicators.

Tesla to Only Sell Solar and Storage Together: Tesla is now big enough that its quarterly earnings reports get wide coverage, but the company’s solar and battery storage businesses are often an afterthought. This week’s report shows that Tesla deployed 445 megawatt-hours of battery storage systems and 92 megawatts of solar in the first quarter, which were increases of 71 percent and 163 percent from the first quarter last year. Jason Plautz of Utility Dive has a rundown of the company’s solar and storage news, including CEO Elon Musk’s comment last week that Tesla will now only sell solar as part of a package with storage.

Missouri Considers Financial Tool to Help Close Coal Plants: Missouri lawmakers are looking at allowing utilities to get rid of their debt on old coal-fired power plants. A proposal would let companies like Ameren sell bonds to cover the remaining debt on the plants, with the bonds backed by the utility’s customers, as Bryce Gray reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ameren, or other utilities, would then be able to invest more heavily in less expensive and less polluting energy sources, which would lead to a net benefit for consumers. This financial tool, called “securitization,” is a potential solution to the problem of regulated utilities that would like to close power plants but can’t, because they still need to pay down debt on the plants.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.

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