Copenhagen Close-up: How Offshore Wind is Powering a Nation

Stephen Smith | December 15, 2009 | Climate Change, Energy Policy, Wind

middelgrundenThis blogpost was co-authored by Rita Kilpatrick and Brandon Blevins

Imagine a society that draws on the power of the wind to generate a significant portion of its electricity.  I’m seeing firsthand how Denmark is just such a place.  For the past two decades the Danes have committed themselves to developing wind farms on land and offshore. They hold the world record in the amount of renewable energy in electricity production with 26.7 % of their consumption coming from renewable energy generation. At the climate talks here, wind power is seen as a major tool to combat climate change. This well-done report gives you a great view of the Danes approach addressing global warming pollution.img_1373

Just as impressive, Denmark gets nearly 20% of its electricity from wind power with a goal to get 30% from renewable energy by 2020. Even more impressive is the Danish Wind Industry Association projects that Denmark could obtain an unprecedented 50% of its electricity from wind energy by 2025, largely through the expansion of offshore wind projects, like the one I visited today.

Today I had the honor of joining a group of journalists, policy leaders and environmental advocates on a tour of the Middelgrunden wind farm – just a couple of miles off the coast of Copenhagen.  It was within view of the popular tourist attraction, the “Little Mermaid.”Most notable was that this wind farm was designed by a cooperative of more than 8,500 people (mostly residents of Copenhagen) who bought small “shares” of the wind farm to help make the project happen.  It reminded me of the “shares” offered by community gardens back home, but instead of food, people supported the construction of a wind project.


In Copenhagen, the wind farm cooperative teamed up with their local utility and went in together on sharing the profit and the liability tied to the wind farm. It’s a great success story.  Locals take pride in knowing they had a role in providing some of their city’s energy and get to visually witness this every day. Now the large power company see wind as a major part of its energy portfolio.

Facts on Windmills in Denmark

  • 20% of Denmark’s electricity consumption is currently supplied by wind power.  It has taken almost 30 years from when the Danish government established a support program for wind turbines in Denmark at the start of the 1990s.
  • The (safety) certification of wind turbines took place at Riso research center, and since in 1985 the Danish government decided not to carry out further research into nuclear power, many of the freed-up resources were put into energy research instead, including wind energy. Around half the wind turbines installed worldwide have been produced in Denmark.
  • The megawatt market took off in 1998. It has since become clear that the trend in the wind energy market is towards larger projects with larger turbines. Today Vetas’ biggest wind turbine is a 3MW machine, but the company is currently developing larger wind turbines that will be ideal for offshore locations.

The Dane’s creative vision for wind energy doesn’t stop here.  Spurred by local wind companies like Vestas, now among the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturers employing over 20,000 people worldwide, Denmark has gone the extra mile to build a top-rate wind infrastructure by developing research, manufacturing, offshore siting, and policy priorities.  Check out the impressive environmental-impact studies done on two of their largest offshore wind farms.

Other European countries have stepped up too. Experiencing the work of these visionaries and doers overseas made me appreciate the vast potential we have in the Southeastern U.S. all the more – not only to build large wind turbines, but to install and operate them offshore for our region.   We’ve got strong, consistent winds that blow along the shallow, vast Outer Continental Shelf that span the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida – they represent a mind boggling potential of 486,666 GWh of clean, sustainable energy for the Southeast region.

In North and South Carolina and Georgia, offshore wind farms are in various stages of planning. These are all significant beginnings of offshore wind development in our region. Just in the last month, we learned that Clemson University was successful in teaming up with the South Carolina Ports Authority and other state agencies to receive a $45 million grant from the U.S. Dept of Energy for large wind turbine drive-train testing in Charleston. This is in addition to Santee Cooper, the state of South Carolina Energy Office, and Coastal Carolina University’s ongoing efforts to measure the wind and wave conditions, iron out the regulatory requirements, and study the transmission needs to make an 80-MW offshore wind project a reality in state owned waters.

Not to be outdone, the state of North Carolina is working with UNC Chapel Hill and Duke Energy to research, plan, design, and construct a pilot project in the large sounds that exist between the coast of North Carolina and the infamous North Carolina Outer Banks. Further South, Southern Company continues to move forward with its plans to apply to the Mineral Management Services for interim siting permit to test feasibility for a wind farm off the Georgia coast.

What’s so appealing about offshore wind energy?  It gives a hedge against rising fuel cost and it can help stabilize and reduce electricity prices by displacing the need for more expensive power plants.  Once developed, offshore wind power will supply affordable, inexhaustible energy to our region’s economy.  It’ll bring jobs and other income as has been the case elsewhere in the world where offshore wind energy has been developed.  Assembly, staging, construction, and maintenance of offshore wind farms will bring a range of jobs to the Carolinas and Georgia.

bremerhaven00Take for example, the city of Bremerhaven, Germany. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall disappeared, so too did the U.S. Army supply harbor from Bremerhaven, taking 3,500 shipyard workers and their families out of the city.  This, followed by difficult years for the fishing industry, resulted in a population decrease of 150,000 to 115,000 by 2001 in the city.  In 2001-02, the city decided to focus its effort on the emerging wind industry, particularly offshore.  Now, Germany is projected to install 10,000 MW of offshore wind by 2020 and the town is benefiting with 700 new jobs that have already been created in the past 3 years, and 300-500 more expected, all accredited to the emerging European offshore wind market.

We’ve got the potential in the Southeast to achieve international recognition for being innovative, reliable and quality-conscious leaders within the wind energy sector, especially with offshore wind energy. We are beginning to scratch the surface in exploring this technology, but we must be bold.  We need leaders who are willing to break down the barriers and develop this technology.  We need utilities, politicians, citizens, and government leaders who are willing to step up to the plate and create jobs, secure our energy future, and save our environment.

screen-shot-2009-12-15-at-42316-amThe turbines I visited today – ironically juxtaposed in this photo with the coal-fire plants from the past in the background –  were realized only through the full commitment of the community, the utility, and the political leaders who decided to take a challenge and turn it into an opportunity; an opportunity that is creating jobs and producing clean, homegrown electricity.  The Southeast has the deep-water ports, the infrastructure, the people, and yes, the wind to make this happen. 
It starts with imagination followed by political smarts and diligence at all levels to make it happen. I believe on today’s tour we got a glimpse of the future for the southeast United States, developing large offshore wind projects to add significant amounts of clean energy to our power system. At the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy we are deeply committed to making offshore wind a reality in our region.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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