More Samso/US Connections

I have posted about my trip to Denmark in late September on The Power Line.  While we were on Samsø Island, we saw a group of college students from the College of the Atlantic in Maine at the Energy Academy.  They were in the middle of a three week study of how to translate Samsø’s achievements into workable solutions for island communities on the Maine coast.

I have just come across a two part video of the students’ trip that will give you a much better idea of what is happening on Samsø than the few photos I posted.  There are great scenes of the Samsø countryside, the island’s offshore wind farm, the inside of the Ballen Brundby district heating plant in operation and the big solar charging station for the municipality’s fleet of electric cars.

Here is Part 1

and here is Part 2.

You can’t really appreciate the leadership power of the people on Samsø unless you see what they are doing in action.  The people who work at the Energy Academy tell you right away that all the technical stuff is easy.  The technologies available to us all are by now tried and true.  The Energy Academy people say the real issue is transforming the way people think about the connections among energy, economics and their communities.  This lesson has now spread to rural Maine.

And, no, they weren’t filming the day we were there, so we didn’t get into the videos.

Good Overview of Denmark’s Renewable Energy Situation, and Comparison with Germany

Here is a link to an interesting overview of Denmark’s renewable energy plans.  The comparison with Germany is somewhat unfair, because Denmark also has coal-fired electrical generation, and the Germans have a definite plan to phase our their coal plants.  I also find the title of the story, “Brave little Denmark leads war against coal” to be condescending and, well, belittling.

The story pulls together a number of threads from my series on my recent trip to Denmark, and fills in a little more history.

The title page of the article has a great picture of a very common sight in the Danish countryside.

The yellow crop in the foreground is rape, which the Europeans use for ethanol production.  Note also that these are not monster wind turbines, but smaller ones probably financed by and serving local farms or a rural village.

Denmark & the US

Why are Denmark’s energy policies so much smarter than those of the US?  More important, why are Danes so much better at actually transforming their country?

Some of the answers are cultural and some are geographic.

Let’s start with a list of some of the geographic differences:

  • Denmark is a small country with a population of about 5.6 million, about the same population as Wisconsin or Minnesota.
  • Denmark has almost no fossil fuel resources, except North Sea natural gas which began production only in the 1980s and is now beginning to decline.  There are no new resources coming on line.
  • Denmark is more densely populated than the US at 333 people per square mile, compared with 33 per square mile for the US as a whole.  Wisconsin, the state with about the same population as Denmark has a population density of 104 people per square mile.
  • Denmark has almost ideal wind power conditions.  The country lies right between the North Sea and the Baltic with a long coastline and lots of islands.

Denmark’s small size means that its federal government is able to be much more responsive to political pressure from constituents.  Denmark’s relatively higher population density means that people are closer together physically and can organize themselves somewhat more easily than can people in the US.  Higher population density also means that improvements in energy efficiency, as well as improvements in the electrical generation and transmission system are less expensive.

Denmark is relatively resource-poor.  The initial oil shock in the 1970s, hit the country hard.  Even with their initial goal of shifting from oil to natural gas for heating, Denmark had to rely on imported gas, mainly from the Soviet Union.  The development of Danish North Sea gas production was a very lucky break when it happened.  Generally high costs for imported coal and oil, and now declining domestic gas production, also make it more economically feasible for Denmark to invest in efficiency and renewable power.

Wind power is a no-brainer for Denmark.  In fact, fossil fuel power may have actually sidetracked Denmark and the rest of coastal Northern Europe from a centuries-long development of windmill technological development.  Wind powered much of the milling and early factories of the region in the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia beginning in the 1300s.  Advanced technology, mainly developed with the use of fossil fuel power, has now brought Denmark back as one of the world’s leaders in wind turbine research, manufacturing and application.

While geography explains a lot about Denmark’s motivations, it is the Danish people who have made their own success.  Here are some of my random observations concerning the cultural differences between the US and Denmark:

  • In Denmark, I was struck by how easy it was for Danes to work together, whether on a national or local scale.  People were friendly and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company.  Although people were hard working and the country’s basic systems ran well, they always took time to talk and exchange ideas and opinions.  This basic impulse is much more pronounced in Denmark than in the US.
  • If you talk with people who work at the Energy Academy on Samsø, they are much more interested in how they engage people in their renewable power projects than they are in the technical details of machinery and construction.  You can see this just by browsing the Academy’s Web site and reading their publications.  Michael Larsen, the person I spoke with at the Academy, told me that some Japanese visitors had once asked him what Samsø’s secret was.  He replied, “Coffee to keep people going during meetings.”
  • Technical skills and abilities are also important parts of the Danish cultural picture.  Denmark has strong unions and a strong commitment to maintaining excellent technical education.  High wages, strong unemployment benefits and a post-high school education all contribute to high levels of skill among working people in Denmark.  The result is a level of personal business innovation that is not possible in the US with its weak unions and a weak, dysfunctional social welfare system, and an education system focused on expensive degrees without vocational technical training.
  • When Samsø municipality needed to retrain its local heating businesses to provide home efficiency improvements and the new district heating system, the resources were there to actually bring the training to the island.  Danes have a confidence that they can make decisions and make them happen that seems to have fallen by the wayside in the US in the last 30 years.
  • Danes take pride in their accomplishments.  They experience the results of smart planning and innovative thinking and skilled work in their daily lives.  Copenhagen is always pointed to as one of the most livable cities in the world.  The Danes made that happen.  It was no accident.  National pride is strong in Denmark.  Danish flags fly everywhere.  Danes are proud, and they have a right to be.
  • Denmark has a long tradition of economic and social planning.  The fact that this tradition is long and continuous means that Danes have gotten quite good at it.  I am not aware of any comparable development planning process in any US state, and certainly not at the US federal level, where there is largely only corporate control and political chaos.
  • All Danish municipalities participate in a single broad planning process that reaches up to the federal level through county governments.  There is a sense of fairness that arises from this single planning system.  Local governments have a way to make their needs felt in Copenhagen, and they can also communicate with other local governments to assert their interests.  People in Denmark generally trust that planning works, because they can see the results.
  • Danish taxes appear to Americans to be very high, except when you actually look at the facts.  Danes don’t have to pay for health care and education from their own disposable income.  While they pay high fees on their electric bills, because electric use per capita is so much lower, their electric bills equal about the average for bills in the US.  Wages are also higher in Denmark than in the US, including a minimum wage three times the US minimum wage.  Danish wages are higher largely because of the social investment Danes make with their tax money.  So, Danish discretionary income is essentially the same or a little higher than in the US.  The quality of life in Denmark is certainly higher.

All of these factors, geographic and cultural, go a long way toward explaining why Denmark has so many advantages over the US when it comes to embracing innovation in its energy sector.  The US cannot overcome many of Denmark’s geographic advantages, but individual US states can.  Many US states operate on the same scale as Denmark with unique renewable power resources.

Culturally, however, people in the US simply aren’t tuned to the same frequencies as the Danes.  In fact, we seem to be moving farther and farther from the Danish spirit of cooperation and confidence in government to make things happen.

Here is an interesting interview with several US power company managers who just returned from Germany.  While German and Danish power systems are different in many ways, many aspects of the German situation parallel what has happened in Denmark, particularly on the level of national policy and the focus on grassroots involvement in the new energy transformations.

Samso and Calhoun County, West Virginia

It may seem strange to compare a small island in the channel between Jutland and Zealand, in the middle of Denmark, with my home county here in West Virginia.  If you traveled to Samsø, however, you would recognize a lot of similarities.  The people are friendly.  The land is the most important feature you see, not buildings or highways.  Both communities share a measure of isolation caused by physical barriers.  Because both communities are rural, they face the same population trends – out-migration of young people and an aging population.

In the late 1990s, Samsø lost it’s biggest businesses – a large hog operation and a commercial slaughterhouse.  In the last twenty years, Calhoun County has lost the few light manufacturing businesses that appeared in the 1960s after the long decline of the local oil and gas industry.  Samsø has a significant summer tourism industry that Calhoun County lacks, but tourism is significant in other parts of rural West Virginia.  The largest employers in the local economies of both Calhoun County and Samsø are education and health care.

There are lots of differences between the two places, but one big difference stands out.  Samsø has visionary leadership.  And that leadership relied on the local people in the local community, not handouts from distant businesses and government officials.  As Søren Hermansen, the director of Samsø’s ten year energy transformation puts it on the title page of the project’s final report: “Think local – act local.”

If you read through the report, you will see time and again how the people of Samsø built their new renewable power systems themselves.  When they did engage outside help, it was always on their own terms.  They made mistakes, they overestimated what they could do, but they always moved forward.  When the new district heating systems threatened to throw a lot of local oil heat installers out of business, Samsø citizens worked out a deal so that a regional vocational school would bring courses to the island to retrain local technicians to work on new heating systems, energy efficiency improvements and skills needed for new renewable power installations.  The report also details the door-to-door efforts to help everyone on the island save money by reducing their energy use.  Particular care was given to the needs and abilities of older residents.

The municipal government of Samsø had started the ten year project by entering the competition, to be selected by the Danish government, to become the first area in Denmark to produce more renewable power than it consumed.  Samsø won that competition in 1996.  The Danish government specified that the winning municipality was required to have active involvement from the entire community, and that it use only readily available, established technology.

The solution for Samsø was relatively simple, because of the island’s location in the middle of a large body of water.  The people of Samsø installed enough wind generation capacity to offset all of their remaining fossil fuel use.  They also converted 65% of their heating to biomass fuel and solar power.  But they did most of it themselves.  About a third of their turbines is owned by power companies, another third by the municipal government, and the other third is owned by residents of the island as private investors.

Local financing was possible because local banks were innovative and serious about building the local economy.  The banks were willing to finance projects because Denmark had a strong and consistent policy of feed in tariffs for new wind power projects.  Both the investors and the banks could be assured that their projects would pay for themselves in less than ten years.  In fact, most of the turbines were paid off in about seven years.  Now, about 60% of the power produced on the island is exported, providing significant income for people on the island and their local government.

The revenue from the island’s wind power funded the construction of the Energy Academy on Samsø in 2006.  Here’s how the final report describes the purpose of the Academy:

The RE[renewable energy]-island project is a socioeconomic development project constructed as an exhibit for the use of renewable energy in a local community. As a direct consequence of these actions, the general objective to establish a central home for the energy island project took hold. The Energy Academy is a community hall for energy concerns, a meeting place for energy and local development.
The Energy Academy was built at the end the ten year project, but it represents a remarkable legacy of the initial effort.
screenshot-energiakademiet dk 2014-10-14 18-36-27 copy

A picture of the Energy Academy taken from the final report

All of the construction work on the building was done by local contractors.  The building incorporates computer controlled smart technologies and super insulation to maintain comfortable temperatures in the interior space.  The roof also incorporates integrated PV panels.  The advanced design provided training opportunities for local builders on these technologies.  As you can see, the building is beautiful.  The interior is very functional as well as being very comfortable and welcoming.

In addition to being the hub of local renewable energy development on the island (Samsø is continuing their project with what they call Version 2.0.), the Academy is now a center of international outreach as a tourism/education destination in its own right.  When my wife and I were there in late September, about 30 students from the College of the Atlantic in Maine were there for a two week residency where they were studying the application of Samsø’s experiences to islands off the coast of Maine.
We spent several hours with Michael Larsen, an Academy staff person who graciously discussed a wide range of subjects with us.  In the afternoon, another couple from Australia arrived and joined our discussion.  These informal international connections are part of everyday life at the Academy as international tourism around renewable energy beats a path to their door.  The Energy Academy itself is a big part of the economic impact of the original renewable energy project.  Travelers arrive there from China, other parts of Denmark, the US, other parts of Europe.  Take a look at the Academy’s calendar to see for yourself.  And yet the Academy remains a local community center, focused on Version 2.0 of Samsø’s renewable energy future.
Here in West Virginia, we face a lot of the same issues that the country people on Samsø face, but what passes for political leadership in West Virginia falls far short of the creativity, hard work and innovation that has characterized Samsø’s renewable energy projects.


Renewable Electric Power in Denmark

Denmark’s renewable energy journey began with a commitment to wean its economy off oil in the 1970s.  That commitment has evolved into a series of what Danes call “Energy Agreements” that represent legislative targets for various sectors of the nation’s energy economy.  Here is the Danish Energy Agency’s summary of the 2012 Energy Agreement in its latest publication on Danish energy policy:

In March 2012 a new political agreement on energy was reached in Denmark. This Energy Agreement is an important step towards fulfilling the 2050 target. 95% of the members of Parliament (i.e. all parties but one) stand behind the Agreement. [emphasis mine]

The Agreement contains a wide range of ambitious initiatives, bringing Denmark a good step closer to the target of 100% renewable energy in 2050.  The Agreement covers the period 2012 – 2020. By 2020, the Agreement will give the following main results:

  • More than 35% renewable energy in final energy consumption
  • Approximately 50% of electricity consumption to be supplied by wind power
  • 7.6% reduction in gross energy consumption in relation to 2010
  • 34% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in relation to 1990.

Here’s how that has translated into Denmark’s current electricity system (from DanskEnergi’s Follow the Current) –

Page 5  from Follow_the_current_Your_electricity_guide(1)There are no nuclear power plants in Denmark, and there will not be for the foreseeable future.  Denmark does draw electricity from the Nordic power pool at times.  Sweden is a member of NordPool and has a lot of nuclear electric generation.  Imports from Sweden provide the 5% of electricity that comes from nuclear power.  Norway is a hydrpower powerhouse, and Denmark draws on some of that electricity through NordPool.  Norway’s hydropower provides some of the base load insurance for Denmark’s wind power generation.

Note that 27% of Denmark’s electricity still comes from coal.  Some of this electricity is imported from Germany through Nord Pool, but Denmark still has a number of coal-fired power plants.  Denmark must import all of its coal to fuel these plants.  The important thing to remember about Denmark’s coal-fired plants is that they are all combined heat and power plants which feed heat into district heating systems.  Thus, the overall thermal efficiency of these plants is considerably higher than if they simply exhausted their heat into the atmosphere.

This graph shows how much district heating comes from electrical plants –

CHP graph

Wind power currently produces about 30% of Denmark’s electricity.  Denmark’s location between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea provides strong, consistent winds.  Denmark’s extensive coast line also means that even onshore turbine sites are strongly influenced by winds from the sea.  Wind power is a no brainer for Denmark.  Because Denmark is so far north, solar power is not as cost effective for electricity generation, but it is used for certain applications, and PV capacity continues to grow.  Sewage treatment plants in Denmark produce biogas and use it for different applications, including electrical generation at their facilities.

Since the 1980s, Danish governments have encouraged renewable power generation using a number of different tools.  The most important of those tools remains the feed in tariff, or extra bonus above wholesale prices that is paid to renewable power generators.

Unlike some countries, Denmark protects its non-renewable generators from negative pricing when renewables flood the grid with energy.  In periods of high wind power production, if wholesale prices begin falling, wind farms must curtail their production when the price approaches zero on the spot markets.

In 2012, Denmark had some of the lowest cost electricity in Europe at about .17 per kwh.  That is just the electricity cost, however.  Residential customers pay over .30/kwh including fees and taxes.  As we have said often here on The Power Line, it’s not about rates, it’s about bills.  Danes’ electrical use averages only about 330 kwh per month compared with West Virginia’s 1100 kwh per month.  Danes’ electric rates are three times higher, but their monthly bills are about the same.

Danes also have some of the most reliable electricity in the world.  According to DanskEnergi, Denmark’s grid reliability is 99.996%, far above the reliability of the US electrical grid.

While Denmark’s electricity markets are completely deregulated, the country’s grid manager, Energinet, is an agency of the Danish government.  Power companies naturally have some influence on Energinet’s behavior, but the agency is not controlled by big generators and transmission companies as in the case with regional transmission organizations in the US.  The fact that Energinet is government-owned means that Energinet’s priorities are consistent with Denmark’s overall Energy Agreement.  In the US, RTOs are used by power companies to block the development of renewable power.

Denmark’s wind power capacity consists of 3.5 GW onshore and 1.1 GW offshore.  If you drive around the country, you will see a lot of small wind farms, no more than four or five turbines, sited near small towns in rural areas.  These mini-wind farms are mostly owned by local governments or by local private investors to serve their communities.

On Samsø, ownership of the island’s wind turbines is equally divided among power companies, the municipal government and private investors.  The feed-in tariffs and other incentives for wind power provide financial predictability to turbine cash flows, and local banks are very willing to lend money to private investors.  A large number of Samsø residents are shareholders in the islands wind turbines because of local financing arrangements.  No one complains about wind turbines on Samsø because they belong to everyone, not some distant shareholders in another country.


Two turbines that were part of a four turbine farm owned by local investors near a small village in the middle of Samsø, not far from the Ballen Brundby district heating plant

The diversity of ownership and investment of local communities drives much of the popular support for Denmark’s very successful push for renewable power.  People value renewable power because they understand it and live with it and see it working for them every day.  And when Danes set about doing renewable power, they committed to doing it themselves.  Their wind power industry created the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer – Vestas.  Vestas now has a lot more competitors, but it was the first really international wind turbine producer.  The company grew directly out of Denmark’s energy transformation and created a whole new manufacturing sector in the Danish economy.

I have to laugh when I hear coal industry people in WV claiming that renewable power is to expensive or impractical.  If that is true, what in the world have the Danes been doing for the last 20 years?




Six turbines off the harbor at Kalundborg

Six turbines off the harbor at Kalundborg near the Samso ferry dock


Samso’s offshore wind farm extends from the southern end of the island. Half the turbines are owned by a power company and half are owned by the municipal government.

District Heating, the Secret to Denmark’s Success

Here in the US, when we think about reducing the use of fossil fuels, we think in terms of fancy renewable power technologies.  This was not where Denmark started its dramatic energy transformation back in the 1980s.

Here is the technology that is the backbone of Denmark’s energy system –


This is the Ballen Brundby district heating plant on Samsø Island.  And this is its fuel –


The Ballen Brundby plant heats the homes of about 300 families, businesses and institutions, entirely from straw and other agricultural biomass waste.  There are four district heating plants on Samsø and they provide about 60% of the heating on Samsø, all from renewable biomass fuel.  You can read more about Samsø’s remarkable renewable power journey in their report, Samsø – a Renewable Energy Island, 10 years of Development and Evaluation.

District heating was Denmark’s first response to the oil price shocks of the 1970s.  At that time, Denmark used oil as its primary heating fuel, as well as its main fuel for generating electricity.  Denmark used a lot of oil for heating, because Danish winters are long and cold.  The Danish government really didn’t have any fuel alternatives at that time, so the highest priority was to reduce consumption.  Here’s how the Danish Energy Agency describes it in the agency’s history of the shift to a wiser energy system:

Denmark chose early on to prioritise energy savings and a diversified energy supply, including use of renewable energy. A broad array of notable energy-policy initiatives were launched, including a focus on combined heat and electricity production, municipal heat planning and on establishing a more or less nation-wide natural gas grid. Furthermore, Denmark extensively improved the efficiency of the building mass, and launched support for renewable energy, research and development of new environmentally friendly energy technologies as well as ambitious use of green taxes.

The recycling of “waste” heat from industrial processes, district heating and rapid improvement in building insulation were Denmark’s first steps because they all involved proven technologies that would generate big savings in a relatively short time.  According to the Energy Agency’s report, district heating now provides more than 50% of the residential and commercial heat in Denmark.  While 17% of this heat still comes from natural gas, most is supplied by recycled industrial heat and biomass, as on Samsø.

Here is what Copenhagen’s system looks like:

screenshot-freshaireva us 2014-10-04 13-07-13In Denmark, district heating works in small rural towns and the biggest cities in the country.

While some urban district heating plants can be quite large, most are relatively small, because biomass fuel is expensive to transport and the plumbing required to send hot water for heat into homes and businesses usually has about a ten mile radius from a plant.  Both biomass and recycled heat provide significant income to local farmers and businesses, because they sell their heat to the district heating utilities.  Over time, district heating systems turn into networks as more and more producers of recycled heat feed heat into the system.

District heating involved a major infrastructure investment in new hot water pipes and pumps.  The first step in making this leap was to create a nationwide planning process to assess needs and to help local investors and governments plan their investments.  This planning “software” is a significant contributor to Denmark’s success, and contrasts sharply with the failure of energy policy and planning in the US.  I will deal with this subject in a later post.

So what does all this have to do with the electrical system?

In Copenhagen, I spoke with someone from DanskEnergi, the association of Danish power companies.  He pointed out two major contributions that district heating makes to Denmark’s electric operations: no peak loads and more flexibility for the remaining fossil fuel generating plants.

There is almost no electric heating in Denmark.  Although winters are colder there than in most of the US, there is no winter peak load phenomenon as there is in the US.  Last winter’s crisis in PJM is unthinkable in Denmark, because demand varies relatively little from winter to summer on the electric grid.

Denmark is pretty cool in the summer, so no residential customers have air conditioning.  The minimal air conditioning that is needed to cool large computer data centers is now being shifted to district cooling systems in major cities.  The cooling comes mainly from seawater, because most of Denmark’s major cities are located on water.  So Denmark has no summer peak either.

I asked the DanskEnergi official how Denmark’s remaining fossil fuel generating plants were managed when the country’s massive wind power system was running at full capacity.  In many countries, including Denmark, intermittent wind and solar power flood grid systems forcing coal and nuclear plants off the grid, or force them to accept negative prices, just so they can keep operating.  In Denmark, fossil generating plants (there are no nuke plants in Denmark) make money selling their recycled heat which cushions the economic impacts of high renewable penetration in the country’s energy markets.  Competition from wind power is still an issue for Denmark’s fossil fuel plants, but it is not the catastrophe that it is in countries without district heating.

In the US, grid managers such as PJM Interconnection, have to plan for large amounts of extra capacity just to cover peak loads that may only happen a few days a year.  This peaking capacity costs rate payers a lot of money.  In Denmark, there is no need for peaking capacity.

I wanted to cover district heating in this first Denmark post, because it is hard to understand the basics of Denmark’s energy system without understanding how important this development has been to reducing the country’s energy needs.  District heating doesn’t rely on fancy technology.  As you can see from the Ballen Brundby plant, there isn’t much to it: a furnace, some farm “waste,” a metal building and some plumbing.  And, of course, because all the ash is non-toxic, it is reapplied to farmers’ fields as fertilizer.  All of the potassium, phosphorus and other minerals in the straw ends up in the ash and can be completely recycled.

Denmark Posts Coming

I just got back from a 9 day trip to Denmark, where I got to see how an advanced industrial nation runs a modern electrical system.  As the US falls further and further behind these advanced countries, we have a lot to learn from them.

In the coming weeks, interspersed among my regular posts, I will share observations from my trip and links to more information about Denmark’s revolutionary systems.  I spoke to power company officials and the people who are building renewable power in communities all across Denmark, and I want to share with my readers what I saw and learned from remarkable people doing remarkable things.