Clean Power

Published on March 9th, 2016 | by Rocky Mountain Institute


Denmark, The Little Country With Big Renewable Energy Goals

March 9th, 2016 by  

Originally published on RMI Outlet.
By Laurie Guevara-​Stone

The small country of Denmark (pop. 5.6 million) is making a big commitment to renewables. In the early 1970s imported oil supplied 92 percent of Denmark’s energy. Today Denmark’s electric grid is over 40 percent renewably powered, and the country is aiming to reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035 and 100 percent renewable energy in all sectors by 2050. Denmark also plans to reduce its domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 relative to 1990 levels–without the use of carbon credits—ten years ahead of the proposed EU target.

A Wind Power Pioneer

If you use this photo, please link to for attribution.Denmark is fortunate to have extremely good wind speeds—averaging 7.6 meters per second (California’s Altamont Pass wind farm sees 5.3 to 7.1 m/s, and power output rises as the cube of windspeed). The country has a goal for windpower to supply 50 percent of electricity consumption by 2020, and it is well on its way. In 2015, wind power supplied 42 percent of domestic electricity consumption.

Denmark was the first country in the world to build massive offshore wind farms, installing a 5 MW wind farm two kilometers from the coastline in 1991. Since then the country has installed four other offshore wind farms bringing offshore wind capacity to 1,271 MW. The country also has over 300 onshore wind turbines bringing total wind capacity as of January 1, 2016 to 5,070 MW. To reach its goal of 50 percent wind power by 2020, the country has an initiative to deploy an additional 1,000 MW of offshore and 500 more MW of nearshore wind turbines, as well as to replace old onshore wind turbines with new higher-capacity ones.

In order to avoid any potential local opposition to the onshore wind farm, the Danish government implemented various regulations to help with public acceptance. For example, residents are compensated if a property loses value due to wind turbines, the local community receives a payment per megawatt-hour of power generated, and at least 20 percent of the shares in a wind farm must be offered to local residents.

Energy Efficiency

Denmark is also a great example of how energy consumption can be decoupled from economic growth. Over the past 30 years, the country’s energy consumption has remained relatively stable, while gross domestic product has doubled. “Our continued efforts on energy conservation have greatly reduced our electricity demand,” according to Henning Parbo, Chief Economist for Energinet, the country’s electric and gas transmission system operator. “And Denmark is not characterized by high energy-intensive industry.”

In fact, Denmark is one of the most energy-efficient countries in the EU and the OECD, partly because many Danish companies have optimized their industrial processes, facilities, and equipment. Denmark’s goal is to reduce its final energy consumption by 7 percent in 2020 compared to 2010. The different energy sectors in Denmark—oil, electricity, natural gas, and district heating—are each assigned a share of energy savings to reach depending on their market share. The trade associations for those sectors then delegate responsibility for those savings to its member companies, also based on market share. The country also quadrupled new buildings’ thermal efficiency from 1977, and forbade oil- and gas-fired heating of new buildings from 2013.

Combined Heat and Power

Denmark is also a leader in combined heat and power (CHP). Twelve percent of all power in Denmark is generated from biomass and organic waste in CHP plants, and more than 80 percent of Danish district heating is cogenerated with electricity. Today, there are 670 decentralized CHP plants around the country. Most of the biomass being used in Denmark today is from straw and biodegradable waste, and 30 percent is imported from Eastern European countries and Canada in the form of wood pellets and wood chips. Biomass proponents claim that burning wood pellets is a carbon-neutral form of energy because the plants that are the source of biomass capture as much CO2 when growing as they emit when burned. However, many others believe harvesting wood for biomass is anything but carbon-neutral and threatens many diverse ecosystems throughout the world.

In December 2014, the Danish Ministry of Climate, Energy, and Building announced that only sustainably produced biomass would be purchased. The agreement includes requirements for the entire biomass supply chain and requires that forests that supply biomass for energy production be replanted. However, the debate continues, as some argue that planting is no guarantee of healthy maturation—about as much biomass belowground must also be protected in its volume and biodiversity, and although the biomass may be sustainably produced, the magnitude of the biomass material harvested may be unsustainable.

Denmark’s CHP plants, in combination with the wind turbines, make Denmark one of the countries with the highest percentage of distributed generation in the world. In 1990, the country had 15 central power plants. It now has 20 central power stations (4,200 MW), 45 electric boilers (550 MW), 5,300 wind turbines (5,070 MW), and 94,000 solar PV panels (785 MW), in addition to the 670 local combined heat and power plants (2,300 MW).

Grid Stability

While the variability of wind power can be challenging, one advantage Denmark has is its proximity to other countries to which it can export wind power. When Denmark has an excess of wind power, as happened last July when the country’s wind turbines produced 140 percent of the electricity demand, it exports electricity to Sweden, Norway, and Germany. Sweden and Norway import the electricity to save water in their hydro reservoirs, and use their hydropower during periods of low wind. Germany uses German windpower to save coal, though Germany’s own renewables are so robust that with their legal (and economically rational) dispatch priority, they often limit Denmark’s ability to export to Germany. Denmark is also looking into establishing new connections to farther countries such as Holland and England.

Denmark is hoping to build a smart grid, and embarked on a full-scale smart grid pilot project in 2005, by reorganizing its grid in a cellular architecture. The Cell Controller Pilot Project (CCPP), which lasted for seven years, used advanced computers to jointly control wind turbines, CHP plants, and other distributed generation sources in a 1,000 square kilometer region, making them operate as a single integrated virtual power plant that can intelligently ramp production up or down depending on wind conditions and power consumption. This not only helps with grid reliability, but also provides ancillary services such as power balancing, import and export of power, and voltage control. A study conducted by Energinet showed that implementing a smart grid would provide gross socioeconomic benefits of $1.2 billion.

Most importantly, Danish grid operators, who 15 years ago would have considered it impossible to run the grid stably with three-fifths renewable supply, now achieve this routinely. They have become among the world’s most adept at integrating diverse, distributed, often variable, renewable resources. As a result, Danish electricity supply is the most reliable in Europe, slightly ahead of Germany’s, and about ten times more reliable than U.S. electricity supply.


Being fossil fuel free by 2050 means a big change in transportation. Yet Denmark has already made great strides. To discourage gasoline consumption, Denmark has a 180 percent tax on new cars, waived if one buys an electric car; a 95 percent surtax on cars weighing over two tonnes; and an annual tax on cars’ inefficiency. There is also free parking for EVs in all cities. It is estimated there are more than 4 million bicycles in Denmark and more than 10,000 kilometers of separated bike paths and bike lanes. And one-third of all commutes to work and school are done by bicycle.

A Fossil-Fuel-Free Future

In its 2014 report, the Danish Energy Agency laid out four scenarios on how to be fossil fuel free by 2050:

  • Wind scenario: primarily wind, solar PV, and CHP deployment, including massive electrification of the heat and transport sectors
  • Biomass scenario: CHP for electricity and district heating.
  • Bio+ scenario: Replacing coal, oil, and natural gas with bioenergy. Wind energy remains at 2020 level (50 percent of electricity).
  • Hydrogen scenario: Highest wind deployment of any scenario along with hydrogen production.

The country does face challenges ahead. “The continued governmental support around Europe to renewable energy with zero marginal costs drives conventional units out of the market and will make the pricing of electricity a strange business,” Parbo told RMI. “This also means that the ability to supply enough electricity in periods with no wind and no solar production will become the main future challenge.”

But the main conclusion of the Danish Energy Agency’s report is that it is technically feasible for the Danish energy system to be 100 percent fossil fuel free. And it’s well on its way.

Photo courtesy of CGP Grey via Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Reprinted with permission.

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About the Author

Since 1982, Rocky Mountain Institute has advanced market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. An independent, nonprofit think-and-do tank, RMI engages with businesses, communities and institutions to accelerate and scale replicable solutions that drive the cost-effective shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. Please visit for more information.

  • Martin

    The very last paragraph is the most telling:
    “.. it is technically feasible for the Danish energy system to be 100 % fossil fuel free.”
    That will be a great accomplishment
    But what is also amazing, in my opinion, that a country that small, only about 42.000 sq/km, with a population of about 5.6 million people is also a NET food exporter.
    They are truly on their way to show the world if we want to, humans can live in a way to sustain ourselves.

    • Ronald Brakels

      It is true that Denmark is a massive food exporter and it is also true that Denmark is a massive sink into which vast amounts of food, far more than they exported, disappears into and is never seen again.

      Just which is true at any particular time depends on how one looks at it.

      Denmark exports more Euros worth of food than it imports and so on that measure it is a net agricultural exporter.

      But the nation imports far more food kilojoules than it exports and so is a net importer of food.

      A lot of what Denmark does is value adding. It takes in cheap grain and other feed and coverts it into pig via a process called putting it inside a pig.

      It takes about 6.2 kilojoules of grain to produce 1 kilojoule of pork. That’s a pretty impressive figure. A testament to the genetic manipulation of pigs we have been performing for thousands of years. I can tell you, human beings come no where close to that feed ratio. But still, it’s an unavoidable loss of about 5 or more food kilojoules for each kilojoule of pork that is made.

      Meanwhile, a country like Australia that produces vast quantities of grain and mostly grass fed animal slave flesh is a net importer of food in terms of dollars and a net exporter of food in terms of kilojoules. In fact we export food to other countries, have it processed, and then import it back. We even spend money to import grape juice from France that consistently goes off by the time it gets here. The foul stuff gets served at parties and then everyone sits around and pretends it hasn’t fermented in the bottle because it costs so darn much. In fact, I’m not even sure Australians are savvy enough to know that grape juice shouldn’t taste like yak’s pee.

      • Martin

        When I did some research on Denmark I found:
        61 % of their total landmass is used for agricultural and 2.6 % of their labour force works in that sector. That sector produces, barely, wheat, potatos, sugar beets, pork, dairy, fish.
        The rest of their labour force is: 20.3 % – industry, service sector – 77.1 %.
        Export are 51.9 %, imports are 49.1 %, debt is 47.2 % of GDP and GDP is US $ 257.1 billion (2015).
        The information also states that Denmark is a net energy exporter, but from the number on the same site it uses slightly more energy that it produces, so I am a bit unsure of that statement.
        On an other site I found that in the past, some 150 years ago, Denmark was in famine and then changed their food system to work to become self sufficient.
        I agree with you that producing meat is not the best way of using our food system, going the meat less diet would be the best way to feed the world, however that is a hard sell in the developed countries.

        • CU

          Denmark has some oil and natural gas, hence net energy exporter. It is net electricity consumer

      • jeffhre

        That’s not true. Grape juice is prefermented before it’s bottled – it’s the stuff that the trucks ran over and rots in the fields after the table crops are shipped.

  • JamesWimberley

    The objections to biomass are getting increasingly strained. The government is committed to sustainable sourcing. Of course this does not mean “cut as long as you replant”. It means “over an entire managed forest, cut no more than the annual increase in volume”. Preferably you started managing the forest like that a century or two ago, as in France, but you can approximate the rule with a bit of common sense. World paper consumption peaked in 2013, so there are a lot of forests planted for that market that will become available for biomass or, better, timber.

  • CU

    “The country also has over 300 onshore wind turbines bringing total wind capacity as of January 1, 2016 to 5,070 MW.” I think the word “new” is missing in the sentence. There are several thousand onshore wind turbines, many very tiny compared with todays standard and old.There is no general expanision of number of onshore wind turbines. Rather in many cases onshore wind turbines are repowered to fewer but significantly larger, up to 10 times larger, and with higher CF.

  • Frank

    Whenever somebody starts up about intemittent and all that, I say Denmark is over 40% just wind and we are like 6% non hydro. Why are we even talking about this? Let’s get ti 40 first. That’s not to say local adjustments aren’t neede, but yes, example.

    • Ronald Brakels

      South Australia: 41% wind and solar, likely to increase to 50% this year. No hydroelectricity, but it’s not required for high penetrations of wind and solar. Denmark doesn’t have hydroelectricity either, but it is connected to neighbors with large hydroelectric capacities. South Australia only gets a trickle of hydropower after it has first been passed through Victoria’s coal fired kidneys.

      Anyway, high penetrations of new renewables are not a problem.

      • JamesWimberley

        “Not a problem” is the short take for those of limited intelligence and attention span, such as the typical denialist foot-soldier. The full version is more like “a limited problem, entirely soluble within current technology with normal professional competence and modest investment, and raising the job satisfaction and status of grid managers”.

        • Ronald Brakels

          Integrating 50% wind and solar into a grid is definitely something that takes effort. But I will say that here in Australia managing to get 73% of our electricity from coal, and over 80% in some states, is also something that took a lot of effort. One of the difficulties being the cost of providing ancillary services to cover multi-gigawatt coal power stations. But delving into the details to compare the two to see which task is the more arduous would be difficult, as one would have to somehow account for how conditions were different in the past.

      • Greg Hudson

        Remember, SA also exports solar to Victoria, and also imports some Vic hydro (yes there are quite a few hydo stations in Vic)

        • Ronald Brakels

          We export wind energy when we can. We rarely export any solar because electricity demand is higher during the day, but I expect you meant we export wind and solar power.

          Victoria has hydroelectric schemes, but generates very little electricity from them. While the Snowy Mountains Scheme was a joint project between Victoria and New South Wales, it is physically located in New South Wales, so hydro actually in Victoria would generate, what, 5% of the state’s electricity consumption? Less? So South Australia imports very little hydroelectricity from Victoria, though we get some, or used to get some, from Tasmania after it had first passed through Victoria.

          Meanwhile Denmark is connected to Norway which generates electricity equal to about 98% of its consumption from hydroelectricity and connected to Sweden for which the figure is about 53%

  • Kraylin

    “forbade oil- and gas-fired heating of new buildings from 2013.”

    What is the replacement? Heat pump and electricity I assume?

    Good work Denmark, a great trail blazer for the rest to learn from and hopefully follow! There are plenty of challenges ahead but technology has already solved most of them and affordability is getting better year by year!

  • ADW

    I like that the “massive wind farm of 5 MW” is now smaller than a single turbine. 🙂

    Technology – it keeps moving forward….

    • Foersom

      Vindeby – world first offshore wind farm

      Yep, wind turbines are growing and gaining higher capacity factors as a side effect. However outside of Northsea area it is still a speciality with offshore wind. We are still waiting for a market breakthrough.

    • John Coller

      The record for a modern turbine is 192 MWh in a day, European houses use about 4MWh in a year, it blows my mind that enough energy can be captured in a single day by a single turbine to power a house for 48 years.

  • Bristolboy

    Supporting renewable energy (especially wind) has been very good for Denmark. The world’s largest wind turbine company (by turnover) is the Danish Vestas and Siemens Wind Power headquarters are in Brande, Denmark. There are also a lot of “smaller” component manufacturers and suppliers.

  • heinbloed

    I think it is already 50% of RE in the Danish power grid, it is ca.40%+ wind power plus the other REs.

    In 2015 it was 42% wind power of the Danish power “consumption”, not only 42% of the Danish power “production” :

    There is plenty of RE still in the pipeline as the article already says, a new cable between Denmark and the Netherlands

    and between Denmark and Eastern Germany

    are already in the building phase.
    The latter between Denmark and Germany connects two wind parks and has two landing points, a remarkable development.

    The North Sea is becoming a power hub, Denmark did the pioneering work and it succeeded. Well done!

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