The article below was Published August 2011 in Environmental Leader Magazine.
For the last 200 years, the United States has been considered the engine of the world’s progress. While traveling the world I’ve noticed that each continent has its own character – Europe is history and culture, Africa is nature and wildlife, and North America is technology and progress. It made me wonder: If the international community views us as a forward-thinking country that brings about many modern inventions, how is it possible that our attitude as a nation toward clean, renewable energy is far from unitary?
I took a look at a country that was one of the pioneers of renewable energy. Denmark is a small nation that makes big contributions to renewable energy initiatives. Along with being a major player in the global arena of clean energy, Denmark also sets an example of how to approach alternative energy development from the national angle. Looking at its domestic policies and strategies may give us an idea of how to improve the public opinion of clean energy in the United States.
The Kingdom of Denmark is a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe with a population of approximately 5.5 million. It is a founding member of NATO and OECD and has been a member of the European Union since 1973. What is interesting about this small country is not how it behaves as a member of a group, but what it does on its own.
Within the last 15 years, Denmark invested in wind energy more than any other European country. It gets 19 percent of its energy from wind; Danish companies control one-third of the global wind market. How does such a small country become a giant in the renewable energy world?
The answer has several components. The geographical position and terrain of Denmark is an advantage. Denmark’s climate, consistent weather conditions and flat open lands make it perfect for wind energy production. The long history of developing wind energy (the first turbine to generate electricity was built in 1891) has given the country time to perfect its approach and technology.
Technology and geography are only partly responsible for Denmark’s dominance in this field. Had the Danish government not been supportive and understanding of the need for renewable energy, the country may have not benefited from this advancement. The Government’s financial contribution was crucial when the industry began to attract private investors. In an attempt to make Denmark less dependent on imported energy supply, an investment subsidy was introduced in 1979 that covered 30 percent of investment costs. Once the industry took off, the government subsidies were no longer necessary.
Although 80 percent of wind turbines are privately owned today, the government is still heavily involved in supporting research and development. Denmark understands the importance of providing access to research-based education at a high level for scientists and engineers. Danish research institutions constantly provide the industry with knowledge used to improve and advance clean energy initiatives.
While government contributions were also a factor in turning Denmark into a pioneer of wind energy, the public support is an even more fascinating element. In 2009, the Danish Wind Industry Association conducted a survey that evaluated public opinion toward the local wind energy industry. The survey discovered that the majority of Danes believed that more than half of the country’s electricity should come from wind energy; 91 percent of the population was in favor of expanding Denmark’s use of wind energy. Furthermore, 85% were neutral regarding wind energy expansion in their local communities.
After reading the statistics, I wondered what factors contributed to such overwhelming public support in Denmark. Was it the desire to be independent from foreign energy supply? Was it the need to maintain the ‘champion’ status in renewable energy production? Or was it the collective hope they could save the planet?
Regardless of which answer is correct, one thing is clear – public support is a major factor in moving toward alternative energy sources. The people of Denmark encourage wind energy development, which helps the government create policies that are friendly to the renewable energy industry. The industry, in turn, provides the nation with relatively inexpensive clean energy. This system seems to be working as a symbiosis that unites the country in caring for the environment and fighting global warming.
Perhaps other major players in the global field of renewable energy (United States included) could learn a lesson or two from Denmark and its people. Simply providing financial support may not be enough to promote and advance clean energy. Nations should work together to create suitable conditions for renewable energy development. The legislative policies should reflect the need for alternative energy sources. The industry should take public opinion into consideration when proposing new projects. And the people should be open-minded and reasonable when considering the possibility of alternative energy development in their communities. Following Denmark’s example of being friendly toward clean energy may be a step in the right direction to improve the environment and protect our planet.