Excerpts from a December 7, 1997 New York Times article titled
Across Europe, a Tilt to Using the Wind's Power, by Marlise Simons
COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- On weekends, when Per Volund goes jogging around Copenhagen harbor, he is drawn to a pier with a row of sleek, modern windmills. As he watches the fiberglass blades spin in the breeze, he knows that they are sending electricity to the grid - and money into his pocket. Volund belongs to a cooperative that bought and installed four 160-foot towers on this prime spot by the sea. He is also part of a large Danish movement -- the Organization for Renewable Energy -- with a daring and ambitious goal. Its backers set out a decade ago to prove that even if big business or utilities had no interest in such experiments, private citizens could produce inexpensive energy that did not pollute.
"We call it power from the people," said Volund, a 33-year-old engineer.. "We do it because we believe in it." Like Volund, thousands of committed environmentalists, including students, professionals and farmers, have dug into their savings to buy turbines and licenses to operate them. They lobbied the government and the utilities until they finally agreed to buy wind energy. The result has been a quiet revolution. Today, close to 100,000 Danes own shares in the hundreds of small cooperatives that operate 4,700 windmills here. And they are making profits. Wind power generates 6 percent of Denmark's electricity, giving this country the highest per capita output of wind energy in the world.
While the American wind industry has stalled, wind power is booming across Europe, encouraged by improved technology, falling costs and government incentives like tax credits and guaranteed prices. Several governments have set targets to stimulate production. European policymakers point to the boom as a key example of how pollution can be cut without jeopardizing jobs or economic growth. With windmills springing up from the coasts of Sweden to the tip of southern Spain, Europe's wind industry already employs 20,000 people. One reason for the growth is that the European Union wants to diversify its energy sources while clamping down on polluters; almost no country could get the political support to expand nuclear plants. The other, more compelling, reason is that in many areas wind power is becoming economically viable.
Powerful new wind turbines can already generate electricity far less expensively than solar panels, biomass or other nontraditional sources, according to the International Energy Agency, a research organization based in Paris. Its studies show that wind energy is now becoming competitive with electricity from Europe's ubiquitous oil- and coal-fired power plants.. For wind, supply starts at the windmills, which do not require mines, oil fields, tankers, dumps, refineries and combustion. Moreover, windmills do not emit sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain, and carbon dioxide, the most widespread greenhouse gas. "Wind energy is now one of the cheapest ways to cut back on greenhouse gases," said Ritt Bjerregaard, the European Union commissioner for the environment.
The future role of renewable energy is on the agenda for the international conference on global warming in Kyoto, Japan. Before the conference, the European Union announced a plan to double the share of renewable energy in its 15 member countries -- to 12 percent by 2010. Today's 6 percent share comes largely from hydroelectric power. But the new $23 billion plan is a key part of the union's strategy to cut greenhouse gases. It will provide additional funds and incentives for wind, solar and other projects.
In wind power, Europe has already overtaken the United States, which led the drive to wind in the 1980s. Europe's capacity of 4,100 megawatts now amounts to two and a half times that of the United States, with Germany alone surpassing the capacity of American wind farms. The way wind is produced underlines a curious contrast between Europe and the United States. American entrepreneurs, seeing wind as big business, built large wind farms with huge numbers of turbines. When oil prices fell and tax credits were cut because of policy changes, growth stalled. In Northern Europe, wind power is basically a cottage industry.
Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have each spawned grass-roots movements with small groups of often politically motivated investors installing one or a few machines at a time and scattering them across the countryside. In Spain, Britain and Greece, the clusters are larger because money has been provided by local governments and utilities. The latest trend in Europe is to start building wind farms offshore, where there is more wind and fewer complaints that they clutter up the landscape. "Many projects are small because this fits in with our history," said Marielle van Aggelen, a consultant at the Dutch Bureau for Wind Energy. Indeed, less than a century ago, before national grids expanded and electricity output became centralized, much of Europe was studded with the traditional windmills, often privately owned.
The Netherlands alone had some 11,000 windmills. Wind power pumped the lowlands dry, ran the sawmills and ground the wheat. Today, the Netherlands has 1,120 modern turbines. Some of them stand right by the old mills, which are preserved as cherished monuments. Arnoud de Schutter, a farmer at Wieringerwerf, a windy spot of the northern Netherlands, bought his first turbine seven years ago. It gave him the power to warm his home and cool his potato and beet silos. "I like it because it's clean energy and I did it myself," he said. After five years the machine had paid for itself and started to make a profit. He sells the surplus, costing him about 4 cents to produce, to the local utility for 7 cents per unit, a premium price, because the government adds in about 10 percent from environmental taxes it has collected from "dirty" conventional energy.
De Schutter, a neighboring farmer and two other partners have just put up another four turbines to operate as a business. They anticipate that the machines will produce net profits for 15 of the 20 years of their life span. "Some people think the towers are ugly," he said. "I think they look a lot better than electric pylons and high tension wires." Wind energy has complicated operations for the power companies, though. "The utilities complain because they have to deal with a lot of small producers like us," said John Springer, a former teacher who runs a Dutch wind cooperative near Vlissingen. Its 19 windmills are scattered around and owned by 1,250 stakeholders, who get 5 percent annual interest on their investment. "Volunteers keep an eye on the turbine closest to their house," he said. "They call if there's a problem."
For the moment, wind energy, like other renewable sources, still depends on subsidies like tax credits and guaranteed prices. But environmentalists point out that other energy industries have also long received government money for research. Besides, they say, the pollution from conventional electricity plants carries an economic and social cost that is not calculated in the price. There are other drawbacks. Wind is variable, and its energy cannot be easily stored, so it requires a backup system. "Wind cannot solve the energy problems," said Nils Anderson, marketing director of Vestas, the world's largest wind turbine maker. "But wind can participate, and these turbines are becoming an important supplement." Vestas exports turbines to India and China, where wind energy is on the rise.
At the Vestas plant on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark, Anderson showed the latest turbines, with a capacity of 1.5 megawatts, more than twice as powerful as those of a decade ago. "We're working on even bigger ones," he said. Design changes now allow turbines to start producing at very low wind speeds. Noise used to be a complaint. But the latest machines on Denmark's fields make a barely audible hum. Any doubts that Volund might have about the future were dispelled recently when his Lynetten wind cooperative placed an advertisement in a Copenhagen daily inviting investment in a new offshore wind-power venture. "There's such a big response, we're putting in more phone lines," he said proudly. "No one is romantic about this. First, it's a business. Second, there is a political consensus in the country to strive for clean energy. That's why it works."