Why are Denmark’s energy policies so much smarter than those of the US? More important, why are Danes so much better at actually transforming their country?
Some of the answers are cultural and some are geographic.
Let’s start with a list of some of the geographic differences:
- Denmark is a small country with a population of about 5.6 million, about the same population as Wisconsin or Minnesota.
- Denmark has almost no fossil fuel resources, except North Sea natural gas which began production only in the 1980s and is now beginning to decline. There are no new resources coming on line.
- Denmark is more densely populated than the US at 333 people per square mile, compared with 33 per square mile for the US as a whole. Wisconsin, the state with about the same population as Denmark has a population density of 104 people per square mile.
- Denmark has almost ideal wind power conditions. The country lies right between the North Sea and the Baltic with a long coastline and lots of islands.
Denmark’s small size means that its federal government is able to be much more responsive to political pressure from constituents. Denmark’s relatively higher population density means that people are closer together physically and can organize themselves somewhat more easily than can people in the US. Higher population density also means that improvements in energy efficiency, as well as improvements in the electrical generation and transmission system are less expensive.
Denmark is relatively resource-poor. The initial oil shock in the 1970s, hit the country hard. Even with their initial goal of shifting from oil to natural gas for heating, Denmark had to rely on imported gas, mainly from the Soviet Union. The development of Danish North Sea gas production was a very lucky break when it happened. Generally high costs for imported coal and oil, and now declining domestic gas production, also make it more economically feasible for Denmark to invest in efficiency and renewable power.
Wind power is a no-brainer for Denmark. In fact, fossil fuel power may have actually sidetracked Denmark and the rest of coastal Northern Europe from a centuries-long development of windmill technological development. Wind powered much of the milling and early factories of the region in the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia beginning in the 1300s. Advanced technology, mainly developed with the use of fossil fuel power, has now brought Denmark back as one of the world’s leaders in wind turbine research, manufacturing and application.
While geography explains a lot about Denmark’s motivations, it is the Danish people who have made their own success. Here are some of my random observations concerning the cultural differences between the US and Denmark:
- In Denmark, I was struck by how easy it was for Danes to work together, whether on a national or local scale. People were friendly and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Although people were hard working and the country’s basic systems ran well, they always took time to talk and exchange ideas and opinions. This basic impulse is much more pronounced in Denmark than in the US.
- If you talk with people who work at the Energy Academy on Samsø, they are much more interested in how they engage people in their renewable power projects than they are in the technical details of machinery and construction. You can see this just by browsing the Academy’s Web site and reading their publications. Michael Larsen, the person I spoke with at the Academy, told me that some Japanese visitors had once asked him what Samsø’s secret was. He replied, “Coffee to keep people going during meetings.”
- Technical skills and abilities are also important parts of the Danish cultural picture. Denmark has strong unions and a strong commitment to maintaining excellent technical education. High wages, strong unemployment benefits and a post-high school education all contribute to high levels of skill among working people in Denmark. The result is a level of personal business innovation that is not possible in the US with its weak unions and a weak, dysfunctional social welfare system, and an education system focused on expensive degrees without vocational technical training.
- When Samsø municipality needed to retrain its local heating businesses to provide home efficiency improvements and the new district heating system, the resources were there to actually bring the training to the island. Danes have a confidence that they can make decisions and make them happen that seems to have fallen by the wayside in the US in the last 30 years.
- Danes take pride in their accomplishments. They experience the results of smart planning and innovative thinking and skilled work in their daily lives. Copenhagen is always pointed to as one of the most livable cities in the world. The Danes made that happen. It was no accident. National pride is strong in Denmark. Danish flags fly everywhere. Danes are proud, and they have a right to be.
- Denmark has a long tradition of economic and social planning. The fact that this tradition is long and continuous means that Danes have gotten quite good at it. I am not aware of any comparable development planning process in any US state, and certainly not at the US federal level, where there is largely only corporate control and political chaos.
- All Danish municipalities participate in a single broad planning process that reaches up to the federal level through county governments. There is a sense of fairness that arises from this single planning system. Local governments have a way to make their needs felt in Copenhagen, and they can also communicate with other local governments to assert their interests. People in Denmark generally trust that planning works, because they can see the results.
- Danish taxes appear to Americans to be very high, except when you actually look at the facts. Danes don’t have to pay for health care and education from their own disposable income. While they pay high fees on their electric bills, because electric use per capita is so much lower, their electric bills equal about the average for bills in the US. Wages are also higher in Denmark than in the US, including a minimum wage three times the US minimum wage. Danish wages are higher largely because of the social investment Danes make with their tax money. So, Danish discretionary income is essentially the same or a little higher than in the US. The quality of life in Denmark is certainly higher.
All of these factors, geographic and cultural, go a long way toward explaining why Denmark has so many advantages over the US when it comes to embracing innovation in its energy sector. The US cannot overcome many of Denmark’s geographic advantages, but individual US states can. Many US states operate on the same scale as Denmark with unique renewable power resources.
Culturally, however, people in the US simply aren’t tuned to the same frequencies as the Danes. In fact, we seem to be moving farther and farther from the Danish spirit of cooperation and confidence in government to make things happen.
Here is an interesting interview with several US power company managers who just returned from Germany. While German and Danish power systems are different in many ways, many aspects of the German situation parallel what has happened in Denmark, particularly on the level of national policy and the focus on grassroots involvement in the new energy transformations.