Op-Ed: Green and prosperous

Published in the International Herald Tribune, December 16, 2009

When President Obama joins the Copenhagen climate summit on December 18, he will very likely sidestep Congressional inaction on new energy legislation, committing our nation to a 17-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

On his return, Denmark's vibrant economy and leadership in the battle against climate change should inspire him as he coaxes a recalcitrant Congress to adopt meaningful new measures to combat global warming.

Denmark awoke to the perils of foreign oil dependence when the 1973 Arab embargo delivered a body blow to its energy security. Oil - virtually all of it imported - met a staggering 90 percent of the country's energy needs at the time. Denmark's political leadership responded by setting the nation on a path toward energy independence, with dramatic and lasting results.

New homes in Denmark today are twice as energy-efficient as their pre-embargo counterparts. Waste heat from local power plants is used to heat Denmark's houses and offices, boosting the energy efficiency of those plants from 40 to 90 percent.

And with taxes on new cars and motor fuel among the highest in Europe, alternatives to automobile travel have flourished. In Copenhagen, a third of commuters travel by bike, their trips made safe and convenient by an extensive network of well-marked bike lanes.

All this energy-saving doesn't seem to interfere with Danish productivity. To the contrary: Danes use less than half as much energy per capita as the average American, yet their gross national income per capita surpasses our own by a resounding 24 percent.

One area where Danes have truly excelled is in their pioneering commitment to wind energy. Starting in 1979, the Danish parliament voted to underwrite 30 percent of the initial cost of wind farms.

A decade later these up-front subsidies were dropped, but the country continued to boost the technology by guaranteeing a subsidized rate for wind-generated electricity while mandating that utilities incorporate wind into their portfolios.

Today Denmark draws a healthy 20 percent of its electricity from wind energy, and the country's wind industry employs about 26,000 people - nearly 1 percent of the workforce.

Politicians across the political spectrum share pride in Denmark's wind energy and want to expand this vital economic sector. Per Jorgensen, a parliamentarian with the Conservative People's Party, trumpets his party's advocacy for government-subsidized wind energy. Along with local jobs, he notes wind technology's contribution to Danish exports - 7.2 percent of the total in 2008.

Parliament Member Anne Grete Holmsgaard of the Socialist People's Party agrees. She proudly cites her party's target of freeing Denmark from fossil fuels for electric power by 2035, and from fossil fuels for all uses by 2050.

Policy analysts and utility executives join Danish politicians in expecting wind to provide fully half of the country's electricity within a decade or two. To reach this goal, a country whose Vikings once ventured seaward to plunder foreign lands now looks to its surrounding seas - the North Sea and the Baltic - as the next energy frontier. Already the world's frontrunner in per capita offshore wind power, Denmark is now commissioning new offshore projects at a breathtaking pace.

To ride out the inevitable fluctuations in wind-generated electricity, Denmark relies on a nimble Northern European power market, with grid interconnections extending throughout Scandinavia and down into Germany. When turbines are spinning out more power than Danish consumers need, electricity is marketed abroad. When winds are low, power from abroad - including Norway's superabundant hydroelectricity - flows in to meet local demand.

The Danes are also coming up with ways to balance out their electricity needs at home. The country's largest power company, state-owned Dong Energy, is now developing a nationwide network of plug-in electric cars in collaboration with a Silicon Valley startup, Better Place. Cars in this network, to be introduced as early as 2011, will emit no pollutants on the road and will tap into clean, wind-generated power to recharge during low-demand nighttime hours when the winds continue to blow.

Denmark's thriving economy and energy entrepreneurship should give our own Congress hope as it charts America's energy future. The twenty-first century's energy opportunities are just too good to miss.