When Popular Mechanics wrote yesterday that Denmark could possibly rely solely on renewable power by 2050, PACE took notice. Because of its heavy investment in wind power, Denmark has always been cited as a leader among nations in the renewable energy space. Today, the small, windy nation obtains about two fifths of its power from renewables. But the leap from 40% to 100% is not a small one. Surely there must be more to the story. It turns out there was.
The article’s author, William Herkewitz, points out that the Danes – like everyone else – have yet to develop ways to adequately store wind power for when wind supplies are low. But that’s a problem energy planners everywhere are facing. Perhaps the more pressing problem is that Denmark’s relatively cheap wind power has made the operation of fossil-fuel power plants a bad business proposition. The nation doesn’t need fossil generation all of the time, rendering traditional power plants expensive to operate on just a part-time basis.
Why is that a problem? Because Denmark still needs – and will likely always need – fossil fuel power generation for emergency backup. Today, Denmark can import nuclear power from Sweden or hydroelectric power from Norway to meet demand, but that might not always be possible in future years. Sweden is considering phasing out its nuclear fleet and the UK is beginning to use more and more Norwegian hydro. In other words, the security blanket that Denmark enjoys today might not be around in 2050.
Aside from the obvious point that fossil fuels still serve a valuable purpose, even in a place like Denmark that doesn’t want them, there is an embedded, more subtle point in the Popular Mechanics story for American policymakers. On a given day in the future, Denmark might use wind power, solar power, nuclear power, and hydro power to meet its demand for electricity. And the nation would consider that generation mix to be 100% renewable. Unlike policy discussions in the U.S., the debate in Denmark seems to focus on achieving carbon reduction, making little distinction about whether a carbon-free electron comes from wind power or hydro power or nuclear power. Such distinctions are, however, commonplace in U.S. energy debates, with climate change activists often being the staunchest opponents of nuclear power.
The article also omits what PACE considers to be a very important point. Today, electricity in Denmark is the most expensive of any major nation in the world. At 41¢ per kilowatt-hour, power customers in Denmark pay more than three times what the average American customer pays for the same product. And while PACE understands that Popular Mechanics is not an energy policy publication, it always seems an oversight to praise a policy initiative without pointing out the great cost it entails. Is what Denmark is trying to do cool? Many will likely think so. Is it costly? You bet. Readers need to hear both sides of the story.