Jeppe Blak-Nielsen has his own very specific reason for appreciating windmills: "Whenever the turbines at Middel-grunden are running," the Copenhagen yachtsman says, "I know the wind is perfect for sailing."
Blak-Nielsen is not talking about some picturesque landmark, but about a gigantic power plant -- 20 turbines, each 112 yards high and just a mile and a quarter off the port of Copenhagen. The Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, with an installed capacity of 40 megawatts, supplies electricity for 40,000 households in the Danish capital. The rotors, each with a diameter of 82 yards, swish well in sight of a much frequented Copenhagen beach -- and yet no one seems to mind. There is a reason: Many earn a share of the wind farm's profits.
Middelgrunden is one of the largest wind farms on earth that are owned by cooperatives. This is the prevailing form of ownership in Denmark and one of the main reasons why the Scandinavian nation is the world champion of wind power. With five million people, the country has 3,136 megawatts of installed capacity -- the highest per capita rate in the world. (By way of comparison, in Denmark wind power generates 0.57 kilowatt per inhabitant; the U.S. figure is 0.04 kilowatt.)
Wind power has been the people's choice for more than three decades. When the oil crisis struck Europe in the 1970s, many Danes recalled their centuries-old tradition of milling the wind. Farmers put up wind turbines, communities financed their own wind parks, cooperatives sold shares to reap the energy above their heads. Their motives, as some of the pioneers remember, were both energy self-reliance and the wish to reduce their carbon footprint. By today’s standards those early turbines were small and inefficient (modern ones are on average six times more efficient and are exported to foreign buyers such as Maple Ridge), and the state supported green energy production with large subsidies. The combination of subsidies, technological improvements, and the rising public demand for renewable energy turned wind power into a viable business. Today, 20 percent of Denmark's electricity comes from the wind.
In sharp contrast to Maple Ridge and other big U.S. wind farms, of the 5,600 turbines in Denmark, only about 20 percent are owned by utility companies. Twenty-three percent belong to cooperatives and almost 60 percent to small, local companies or to individuals, including farmers. This has been the key to public acceptance. As one Danish study concluded: "People who own shares in a turbine are significantly more positive about wind power than people having no economic interest in the subject. Members of wind cooperatives are more willing to accept that their neighbor erect [sic] a turbine." Other experts say that local ownership makes wind power more economical, since expenses are lower and companies more competitive, with cheaper connection to the grid than big utilities would offer and faster, less bureaucratic decision-making.
But now that grassroots-owned technology has turned into big business, not all is well in the state of Denmark. A conservative government has changed the rules of the game: Subsidies for wind-generated electricity have been reduced and planning rules for new turbines tightened. As a consequence, the flourishing market is stalling. In 2006, Denmark installed only 11 megawatts of new turbines, compared with the 2,200 megawatts installed in its big southern neighbor, Germany.
This slowdown suggests that wind power in Denmark may be heading for "a real crisis," says Preben Maegaard of the Nordic Folkecenter for Renewable Energy. "The big utilities are moving in because they see the chance to make a lot of money with offshore wind parks." Indeed, the two large parks currently being built in Denmark will both be run by big energy corporations. In a business that plans multimillion-dollar investments, "the general trend is to have more utilities and fewer cooperative owners," says Christian Kjaer, director of the European Wind Energy Association.
Maegaard fears that these changes will erode public support for wind and, in the name of free-market principles, jeopardize the healthy market that community ownership has encouraged. Already there have been local protests against new turbines being installed by the giant utilities. As the Danish Wind Industry Association has warned, citing a 1996 University of Amsterdam study, "Public resistance to wind projects is not so much against the turbines themselves, but also against the people who want to build [them]."