TCS Daily

Denmark's Red-Ink Wind

By Herbert Inhaber - July 1, 2002 12:00 AM

It's all too easy to criticize the press for distortions and confusions. Almost all of us have done this at one time or another. Usually, however, the press is reporting some news that we don't like, rather than garbling it altogether. Such is not the case with a recent Reuters news report on the Danish wind program.

In effect, the story had two components, one favorable to the program, and the other unfavorable. Which do you think got all the attention?

The headline blared: "Danish wise men say wind power now profitable", citing the Danish Economic Council, nicknamed the "wise men". The wise men say the more favorable outlook for wind is due to improved technology with the main difference being much larger turbines.

Danish Wind

Now, to make sense of this story, a little history is in order. The Danish wind program started about a century ago, when greens were something you ate with pickled herring. There was no environmental aspect to it at all. Rural Danes had no access to electricity from the cities, and developed their own whirling sources. Obviously, poor farmers could afford only tiny windmills, just about enough to light a few bulbs.

But in the past two decades, greens jumped on the bandwagon, and touted the environmental benefits of wind. Due to government subsidies, some of the biggest wind manufacturers in the world are in Denmark.

And now the Danish wind energy system is held up as a beacon by many greens. This high praise for Danish wind goes back at least to Amory Lovins' article in the magazine Foreign Affairs in 1979, where he praised it effusively. Others have said that it was a model for larger countries, as mean old fossil fuels would gradually disappear under the onslaught of gentle windmills.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

But now the new Danish government has abandoned plans for some offshore windmills. Why would they do that? After all, wind farms are now profitable, right? Why would they ever want to abandon plans to foster a profitable energy source?

Well, perhaps that because it's not really profitable, contrary to what Reuters' headline writers may say. Towards the end of the story, Reuters comes clean saying only that Danish windmills "can be profitable", not (as their headline implied) that they actually are. I suppose that Enron could also have been profitable, but was it? The fact that half the lawyers in Texas are working on the case shows the difference between "can" and "is".

All of this shouldn't surprise us. If Danish wind -- either on land or offshore -- were economically viable, private industry would build the windmills themselves, subject to minor environmental rules. The siting rules aren't that strict, given that the nation has thousands of turbines of various sizes.

So the wise men's claims that the industry is now on the verge of becoming a moneymaker after years of subsidized losses seem shaky. If they were right, the industry would build the offshore windmills without worrying about government approval.

Just as a footnote to all this, I looked up data on Danish electricity at America's Energy Information Administration website. Almost all Danish electricity, other than the small part deriving from wind, comes from that notoriously environmentally green source -- coal. So the Danes produce more carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour than the supposedly environmentally-hostile Americans, where only about 55% of electricity comes from coal. Is it a coincidence that Hans Christian Andersen came from Denmark, and wrote about the emperor who had no clothes? The windy emperor of the greens, at least in this instance, has no clothes.



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