Denmark has lofty goals: By 2020, the country aims to produce 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources and to make the switch to renewables completely by mid-century.
"Today, we're already at 43 percent," said Kristoffer Böttzauw, the deputy director general of the Danish energy agency Energistyrelsen, which coordinates Denmark's energy policy.
"At present, renewable energy sources account for about 25 percent of Denmark's total energy consumption," said Böttzauw. He's convinced that the country's goal to completely abandon coal, oil and gas by 2050 is realistic.
Tobias Austrup, an expert on renewables for Greenpeace, is looking for that same ambition from the German government and industry. Speaking with DW, he called Germany's northern neighbor "a trailblazer" in the EU. "[Denmark] has shown that industrialized countries are able to carry out real, genuine and rapid energy transition in the middle of Europe."
Austrup sees the Danish energy policy as a blueprint for Europe and Germany. "So far, the German energy transition is only in terms of electricity," he said, naming a few ideas from Denmark that he would like to see introduced in Germany, including a ban on fossil fuel heating and an intensified cogeneration of heat and power. "These plants are highly efficient. They use waste heat from the generation of electricity for heating." Austrup added that in terms of wind energy, Germany can also learn a lot from its neighbor.
With about 7,300 kilometers (4,500 miles) of coastline, the conditions for wind power in Denmark are better than almost anywhere in Europe. Located between the North and Baltic Seas, Denmark has naturally looked to the waters to expand its wind power projects.
A Swedish-German-Danish partnership is working to set up a 600-megawatt wind farm in the waters between the three countries, set to produce electricity by 2020 at the latest. In 2013, a 400-megawatt offshore wind farm was inaugurated off the Danish island of Anholt, with wind turbines provided by German multinational Siemens.
But offshore wind farms alone are not enough to meet energy demands, and so wind power projects have also been expanded on land. Local resistance to growing wind power plants often prevented further development in the past, but in 2008 the government introduced new requirements that brought about greater acceptance.
For example, said Böttzauw, residents are now directly compensated for any loss. If a house loses its value after one of the 150-meter high wind turbines pops up nearby, the operator must compensate homeowners for that loss. In addition, at least 20 percent of the shares in the project must be offered to local residents, giving them a direct stake in the investment.
Finally, said Böttzauw, the community receives a direct allocation per megawatt of power generated. All these measures have greatly increased acceptance of wind farms in the local community, he said, as they "bring direct benefits to the community and its citizens if they give their support."
The Danes have also taken into account objections to increasing power lines, solving that problem with underground cables. Böttzauw admitted that it's an expensive solution, but said locals could not be expected to put up with new utility poles in addition to the towering turbines. The only exception will be the large offshore wind farms, which will make use of three new power lines to distribute electricity throughout the country.
Intelligent storage concepts
Böttzauw admitted that the biggest problem with the abolition of fossil fuels will be in the transport sector. But, he said, increased electromobility will help solve the problem. "You can't decide when the wind blows," he said. "But you can use electric cars to store the power generated by wind energy." When the grid is running low, car batteries will be able to send stored energy back into the system.
Denmark is also looking into using heat pumps for storage, so that when wind farms are generating excess capacity, the extra electricity can be stored in the form of heat and later be used to heat homes and businesses.
"When the wind is really blowing, there is no cheaper electricity than wind energy," said Böttzauw. And when the wind isn't blowing, Denmark might be able to turn to the sun instead. For that reason, Energistyrelsen has increasingly invested in solar energy systems. To meet the rest of Denmark's energy demands, the country makes use of biomass, supplemented by energy savings and energy efficiency.
The plan seems to be working: According to the country's Department of Energy, the Danish economy has grown by 78 percent since 1980, even though energy consumption has remained nearly the same.
Exports and job creation
In Germany, a popular argument against renewable energy is the lack of competiveness: consumers are obliged to pay a surcharge in the name of renewable energy, while energy-intensive industries are exempt from the levies. Greenpeace's Austrup says it's outrageous. "At the moment, the German industry is the biggest winner of the energy transition. They haven't seen such low electricity prices for at least 10 years. "
The Danish government has chosen a different path. Companies receive a subsidy if they use renewable energy and increase their energy efficiency, a policy that encourages creativity and leads to savings.
In 2010, the Danish energy technology sector accounted for about 10 percent of the country's exports. In order to continue being a market leader, Denmark has invested heavily in research and the promotion of renewable energy, energy-efficient technologies and renewable heat supply systems. Every year, the sector is responsible for creating around 6,000-8,000 new jobs in the country of 5.5 million people.
Serving as a model
Denmark's success has caught the attention of other countries around the world, including China. Böttzauw told DW that the two countries have been cooperating on energy projects since 2006, starting with wind energy but expanding into the development of renewable energies in 2010.
"China has expressed a great interest in our district heating systems, along with biomass technology and offshore wind turbines," said Böttzauw. He's pleased that China has shown interest - as well as with the success of Danish energy technology, which includes everything from pumps to wind turbines, insulation technology to thermostats.
But economic interests were not the focus of the cooperation, said Böttzouw. "We went to China to help deal with the energy and climate problems caused by economic growth there" - the same motivation that has driven Denmark's energy policies. "We just want to show that it's feasible."