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To run completely on clean energy, Denmark harnesses wind power

December 12, 2015 at 7:19 PM EDT
In Denmark, officials have taken strides to minimize the effects of climate change by converting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. Over the next 35 years, the country aspires to become the first nation on earth to run completely, including transportation, on clean energy. NewsHour Special Correspondent Lisa Desai reports.

LISA DESAI: The island of Samso lies 9 miles off Denmark’s mainland.  It’s mostly a farming community and home to four-thousand residents who are part of a cutting edge experiment.


LISA DESAI: Good morning!

Soren Hermansen is the man most responsible for putting Samso on the map as the world’s first island powered 100 percent by renewable energy.  The transformation began in the late 1990s.

SOREN HERMANSEN: The question would always be, ‘Does it cost more than what we have today?  Or how do finance it?  Or is it technically difficult? // Will it change my daily routines and stuff like that?

The smart house is controlled by a computer…

LISA DESAI: As Director of the Samso Energy Academy, Hermansen hosts visitors from around the world — explaining how Samso went from being entirely dependent on imported oil and coal for its electricity to running fully on wind and solar energy.

SOREN HERMANSEN: So this is a roof integrated solar panel. It’s producing about 6,000 kilowatt hours per year, which is the same as we consume in total per year.

LISA DESAI: The main source of power on the island is 21 wind turbines — 11 on shore and 10 offshore.

SOREN HERMANSEN: So the electricity is all produced from wind turbines today, which was a great big effort, because some of the islanders they kind of had this image that, wow, maybe the island will flip over, because they’re so big.

LISA DESAI: Overall, the island produces more energy than it consumes, and transmits the excess by cable to mainland Denmark. Samso uses the profit it makes from selling the excess — about three million dollars last year — to improve its energy infrastructure.

SOREN HERMANSEN: Some of the critics said a wind turbine would never pay its own cost in it’s lifetime. That’s a myth.

LISA DESAI: But most of the island’s home heating comes from a different renewable source: biomass, or plant-based energy.  And the fuel is locally-grown straw.

SOREN HERMANSEN: We have four district heating plants and they supply about 75-percent of all heat.

LISA DESAI: Hermansen took us me to one of those heating facilities.

SOREN HERMANSEN: We burn straw in like a big pot and then cook water and send it around to people.

LISA DESAI: Transforming Samso has cost 80-million dollars over past decade-and-a-half –- a mix of private investment and government subsidies. Hermansen says the biggest challenge wasn’t economic or technical; it was social.

SOREN HERMANSEN: Farming community had to be convinced they should share their land with wind turbines, and they could be their own owner or cooperative owners with other people.

And for house owners if you change your heating system to use district heating or biomass or solar panels, then it will be cheaper and better than the traditional oil boiler you had in the house before. I needed to show them the money in a way.

LISA DESAI: Show the money to Samso residents like electrician Brian Kjaer, who decided to place a wind turbine in his own backyard.

LISA DESAI: This is your own personal turbine.

BRIAN KJAER: Yes it is.

LISA DESAI: Not a lot of people can say they have one in their backyard. Kjaer figures the wind turbine saves his family two to three thousand dollars a year on his electric bill.

BRIAN KJAER: Everybody is looking here and says, ‘You’re so way ahead in our challenge to cut back on fossil fuels.’ And for us it’s our everyday life, and we feel it’s natural.

LISA DESAI: Down the road, farmer Jorgen Tranberg is also energy self-sufficient.

JORGEN TRANBERG: I have full up all my good roofs with solar panels, and this house is full up with straw.

LISA DESAI: He owns solar panels, part of an offshore wind turbine, and another turbine that’s right on his property.

JORGEN TRANBERG: The solar panels they pay back in 8 years, and so why not try?

LISA DESAI: Instead of just talk, you did action?

JORGEN TRANBERG: Yes, and I earned money on it!

LISA DESAI: He earns money by selling the power he doesn’t use back to the Samso utilities.

So what are we about to do?

SOREN HERMANSEN: Well, we intend to climb the turbine.

LISA DESAI: We’ll warm up once we start climbing.

SOREN HERMANSEN: That’s right.

LISA DESAI: Should I go in?


LISA DESAI: Before starting up I put on a safety suit and gloves. It’s a 150-foot climb to the top.

SOREN HERMANSEN: So, one more step.  Can you reach up here?


SOREN HERMANSEN: That’s better so you can lift yourself up.

LISA DESAI: With a push of a button, Hermansen opens the door to the nacelle, which houses the gearbox and generator.

SOREN HERMANSEN: You can step up here and you can have the view.  All right?

LISA DESAI: Okay! Wow, this is really, really something.

SOREN HERMANSEN: This is a three thousand horsepower engine.  So it’s a big engine.

LISA DESAI: Samso has become a symbol of what Denmark wants for all of its five-and-a-half million people.

It’s first country to build massive offshore wind parks and has an ambitious plan to run 100 percent on renewable energy by 2050: no oil, coal, or gas for electricity, heat, or even transportation.

The plan was set in motion in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, 40 years ago — not because of global warming, but because of the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

With 99 percent of its energy then coming from the Middle East, Denmark decided to pursue energy independence. Its thousands of miles of coastline are especially suitable for harnessing wind power, but one drawback is: the supply is not consistent.

TORBEN GLAR NIELSEN: You’ve arrived on a day where there is no wind in Denmark.

LISA DESAI: Torben Glar Nielsen is Executive Vice President of Energinet, a government-owned company responsible for Denmark’s energy infrastructure.  At the heart of the system is an interconnected electrical grid — a sort of energy exchange — that links Denmark to its neighborsSweden and Norway to the north and Germany to the south.

TORBEN GLAR NIELSEN: We have interconnectors to other countries. When this is no wind, for example, we can import, and when there is a lot of wind, we can export.

LISA DESAI: Energinet is in negotiations to extend the grid to include the Netherlands and the U-K, making the market for renewable energy more reliable and competitive.

TORBEN GLAR NIELSEN: People they can buy electricity where it’s cheapest, so that’s very good for the consumers.

LISA DESAI: But not so good for traditional power plants.  While on average Denmark produces 40 percent of its electricity from wind, there are times when it produces more than 100 percent, and that makes the price of electricity so cheap, coal and gas fired plants can’t compete.

One day in September, power plants across the whole country shut down for 24 hours.

TORBEN GLAR NIELSEN: What they are doing, a lot them, is that they very early they took the step, ‘Okay, we have to have to be part of this instead of against this.’

So today, for example, the Danish company Dong – they are building offshore wind parks. So instead just saying, ‘We have to stick to the coal-fired power plants,’ they have gone into the new business.

LISA DESAI: Beyond developing renewable energy, Denmark is pushing conservation too. To discourage gasoline consumption, Denmark’s tax on new cars is among the highest in the world an incredible 180 percent. 

That encourages Danes to spend more time on two wheels.  In fact, here in Copenhagen, one-third of all commutes to work and school are done on bikes.

While electric cars are not as popular here as in other countries, like Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, or the U-S, Denmark offers a big financial incentive to buy electric – waiving that 180 percent new car tax. Engineers Mads and Ann Lykke own two.

MADS LYKKE: It’s better technology. It’s much more fun, it’s quiet it’s cleaner.

ANN LYKKE: And you never lose a race for green lights.


LISA DESAI: Not only are their cars cleaner, their appliances are all rated A-plus.. Like a lot of their neighbors, the Lykkes have a washing machine, dishwasher, oven, refrigerator, and freezer with maximum energy efficiency. Their lamps use LED bulbs, which use less energy than typical incandescent or fluorescent bulbs.

It’s so efficient that it doesn’t get warm.

Because their house has solar panels too, the family is very conscious of its energy consumption tracking it all on their computer. That spike? When the coffee maker went on in the morning. While all of this cost them more up front, the Lykkes say it saves them money in the long run, and it’s the right thing to do.

MADS LYKKE: It’s only natural — you want to leave a better country for your kids.  We also want to do that.

LISA DESAI: Denmark’s vision of the future includes “smart homes” with computers that run appliances when energy demand is lowest and cheapest. And extending the smart power grid throughout Europe, from Denmark to Spain, to distribute power where it‘s really needed on any given day.

Back on Samso Island, Soren Hermansen is looking ahead.

SOREN HERMANSEN: We should go further, because we can. We should develop the technologies, because it’s necessary, and we have the possibilities, and we should do science and research also to be on the next level of development to help out the rest of the world in this transition to better the climate.