Denmark decided decades ago to wean itself off foreign oil. In 1973, Arab states angry about Denmark's support of Israel stopped oil flow to the country. To conserve energy, Danes took cold showers, and the government restricted auto use. The government eventually found its own offshore reserves, but by then, Danes were committed to finding a renewable homegrown resource: They took a gamble on the wind.
In many ways, the gamble paid off. Heavy subsidies to the wind industry sparked a technological revolution that resulted in more efficient, more powerful, and cheaper turbines. Today, wind power provides 20 percent of electrical energy needs in Denmark, compared with just 0.7 percent for the United States. The Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas controls about 35 percent of the world market; the industry employs more than 20,000 people; and Denmark itself spins more than 5,500 turbines.
Flighty. But it's partly because of wind power (as well as healthcare and education) that taxes in Denmark are among the heaviest in the world. And electrical rates are no lower than in the rest of Europe. Equally problematic is wind's flighty nature, a phenomenon that forces the government to buy electricity from its hydro- or fossil-fuel-powered neighbors during shortfalls and to unload it cheap, or at a loss, when there is overproduction.
Nevertheless, wind power is cheaper and more plentiful than ever, sparking close to 30 percent growth rates over the past few years in the United States. "The irony," says Randall Swisher of the American Wind Energy Association, "is that U.S. consumers owe a great deal to consumers in Denmark who have been willing to pay a higher price for their power."
Yet wind here seems unlikely to match its Danish counterpart anytime soon. The federal government has failed to make tax credits for wind consistent, and America's wind-swept plains are far from many cities, requiring massive infrastructure to move the power. Coal is still cheap and plentiful. But that could change if Congress acts on regulating greenhouse gases. If it does, domestic wind power could make like Denmark and suddenly go boom.