For Whom the Wind Blows

Sometimes it seems Denmark’s primary goal in life is to make the U.S. feel environmentally inferior.? I could offer a thousand examples of Americans worshiping at Denmark’s much-touted altar of energy enlightenment. But President Obama expressed it best on Earth Day, 2009, when he said, “Today, America produces less than 3 percent of our electric through renewable sources like wind and solar-less than 3 percent. Now, in comparison, Denmark produces almost 20 percent of their electricity through wind and power.” Shame on us!

In his most recent book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, Robert Bryce tells us to get over it. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Bryce deploys his calculator to question the numerical logic of wind power. While advocates of renewables will surely take issue with the buttons he’s pressed (they already have), Bryce-whose book is a sustained attack on our irrational infatuation with wind and solar power-dedicates an instructive chapter to Denmark’s status as the world’s leading light on wind energy.

The point most lauded by pro-wind pundits (Bryce picks on The Atlantic‘s Joshua Green and the Times‘s?Tom Friedman) is that Denmark’s famous transition to wind-it now accounts for 13.4 percent of all the electricity generated in the country (not 20 percent)-has helped the country stop importing oil. The general implication behind this impressive statistic is that Denmark, by harnessing wind, has taken a profoundly significant step toward reaching the same Holy Grail that we’re told over and over again must be sought here at home: energy independence.

Bryce (who, by the way, writes with a nice dash of attitude-“all of the wind power and happiness in Denmark makes me want to fly to Copenhagen for a cup of coffee and a hug”) swiftly debunks any suggestion that Denmark is moving closer to energy independence.? First, while it’s quite true that Denmark no longer imports oil, it’s not because of wind. Instead, it’s because-sensitive topic here-it has pursued an active offshore drilling program. In fact, Denmark is an exporter of oil due to its aggressive exploration of the North Sea. But more importantly, while Denmark is indeed off the oil-import habit, it now imports all its coal, and as wind power increases these coal imports “show little sign of declining.”

The reason for this continued reliance on coal is simple: wind, being wind, isn’t always blowing. What this means for Denmark-which is heavily reliant on coal-is that demand for coal literally shifts with it. Sometimes the wind is blowing when you need it; then you use it. Sometimes it is not blowing when you need it; then you use another energy source-again, in Denmark’s case, coal. Sometimes it blows when you don’t need it; then you export it-as Denmark often does.?? As is the case everywhere, the failure of wind to meet energy needs precisely when they arise means that it must always be buttressed by conventional sources of generation–sometimes coal, sometimes natural gas.? Either way, the upshot is the same: the consumer gets hosed.

It should be noted, in all fairness to Denmark, that its citizens have done something the U.S. seems unwilling to do: they’ve kept energy demand flat. Today, Denmark uses the same amount of per capita energy as it did in 1981. Remarkable. But this accomplishment should not obscure what has happened in Denmark since the country turned to massive investments in wind power. The Danes are more dependent on oil than ever-even if it is their own.? In fact, they get 51 percent of their primary energy from oil, compared to 40 percent in the United States. Same with coal-they are also more reliant on coal as a primary energy source than the United States (26 versus 24 percent). Greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased (by 2.1 percent) as the use of wind energy has doubled. ?These figures rarely make it into all the “energy happy talk” about Denmark.

The story of Denmark is one to heed as we prepare to dive headlong into alternatives. Bryce douses the green energy movement with a cold shower of facts and figures, ones that collectively remind us that a transition to wind and solar power would take decades, that it would be astronomically expensive, that it would make the U.S. reliant on China for turbines, and that it would lead to “energy sprawl.” For all the intuitive appeal of renewable energy, Power Hungry makes a convincing case that decarbonizing the world’s primary energy use will mean letting the sun shine and the wind blow while embracing natural gas as a bridge to nuclear energy. Then, and only then, might it be time for Denmark to envy the United States.


Dr J

Are you really saying we can't make wind turbines in the US and have to import them from china? I find that statement ridiculous. Also, I believe denmark uses half the amount of energy per unit GDP as the US - as does most of europe, The question is do they burn more coal or less because of wind turbines - even to a libertarian freakonomomist the answer is obvious, they burn less coal than the would have otherwise.

Jim K

What does this have to do with economics? And why is the Denmark consumer getting "hosed?" Even if only 13% of their energy comes from wind, that's still better than 1%. Clearly wind power is not a panacea, but that doesn't make it a bad thing.

Rudiger in Jersey

As Hamlet knew,
There is only one solution:
Regime change in Denmark.
Conquer Denmark and take their Wind Power.

Invade during periods of still winds so their radar won't be on.

Boooooohaaaahaaaaaaaa!

David S.

Yes, wind and solar power are intermittent (along with tidal, although that has a more constant period) - which is why investment in technology such as the Smart Grid or home batteries would be beneficial.

My main problem with this article is the lack of context for some of the quotes and figures. For instance, James says " Greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased (by 2.1 percent)..." but there is no time frame or comparison to other countries, specifically the US. Has it increased that much in a year or decade? James' entire article seems to be comparing the U.S. to Denmark, but how much has the U.S.'s green house gases increased in that same time frame?

Obviously Denmark isn't perfect, but they seem to be make a concerted effort into improving carbon neutral, renewable energy/technology. That is what we should emulate. Spending money towards making non renewable energy sources such as coal (like James suggests) is just putting good money after bad.

The tone of the article seems to portray these 'green' energies as a waste of money and that coal/gas/oil are more cost efficient, but he fails to bring up the severe environmental, fiscal, and social impacts these bring. The coal mine in W. Va just killed 26 miners. The oil rig off of LA. just killed 11, will cost billions in clean up, and put a huge dent in the ~$50B seafood/fishing/tourism industry. On top of all of that money, there is the wrongful death lawsuits that will likely award millions to the families of the deceased. Do you really believe that BP and the other industries are going to absorb those costs or pass them along to the consumer?

I ask you James...how many people has wind/solar/tidal killed?

The only point in this entire article that makes any sense is the mention of nuclear power as a primary source of energy. The problem with that though is the stigma associated with it and the "not in my back yard" mentality.

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tom p.

Dr J pretty much nailed it. This piece has two marginally interesting points - that Denmark uses coal and that Denmark uses oil.

Of course Denmark uses less coal than they would if they hadn't invested in wind. Reviewer fails to make that obvious connection.

Lastly, what is astronomically expensive? Facts and figures please. Under one trillion dollars? Or less than we spent on our optional wars or TARP or 10 other aspects of the $12T financial bailout? How much does it cost us annually to maintain our military to protect our oil supplies?

Colin

Great post. The answer to our energy needs is almost certainly not an updated version of a 16th century technology. What is the answer? I don't know, and I doubt anyone else does either. Let's tax pollution and then let the collective intelligence of the free market rather than politicians decide what method is best.

Robin

So rather than learn from this information, we should decide that wind is bad because it isn't perfect? If you get some power from wind, even if it isn't consistent, you don't have to burn fossil fuel for that power. How much coal would Denmark be using today if not for their wind power? Why is that rather important calculation absent from you analysis?

trace

Please change the name of your column to conformanomics, since you seem to be unable to think of anything outside of the absolutely traditional.. We have been dominated by this type of short-term industry-generated economics for forty years. ..We need to move forward to something smarter and better, and believe me, it is not nuclear power and natural gas..These are huge profit generators only if subsidized by the taxpayer - the whole things stinks to h igh heaven already..Your type has allowed oil to rape the world, while refusing to think outside the box...What are you afraid of? Biking to work?

Holly McLachlan

As is the case everywhere, the failure of wind to meet energy needs precisely when they arise means that it must always be buttressed by conventional sources of generation-sometimes coal, sometimes natural gas. Either way, the upshot is the same: the consumer gets hosed.
Would you mind actually supporting this assertion? It may well be true, but there is nothing in the preceding paragraph (or the entire piece) to support it. How does the consumer "get hosed" when coal is used to balance/supplement wind energy production?
I realize pop culture writers for the New York Times are under no pressure to make logical, fact-supported arguments..... but it would be pleasing to see you make the effort when discussing energy policy.
Right now, somewhere in Westchester, there is a Compleat Idiot who is using your soundbites to make bogus anti-enviro arguments at a lunch table. If he's sufficiently loud and "certain" in his presentation of your unsupported assertion, he may actually convince some poor sod that he's got a point.

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CandyKay

Denmark gets an enormous amount of its energy from burning its own garbage, as a previous New York Times piece reported.

Also, one of the reasons energy consumption per capita has remained unchanged is that owning a car is very expensive here. A new car generates a 180% sales tax, parking on the street downtown is about $6 an hour, and gas is $7-8 a gallon. Electricity is also extremely expensive.

Furthermore, unlike the in U.S., homes have not become notably larger over the past 20 years. No "McMansions" in Denmark.

DJR

Is there some reason all the exported surplus energy captured during windy periods can't be stored, say, using a massive underground bunker full of magnetically levitating flywheels?

You certainly wouldn't get all of it back, but you'd at least be able to reuse it in times of shortage. It would be kind of like a wind granary.

Abhishek

Transition to solar and wind will not decades . Wind is already cheaper to the fossil fuel if you count the external health,pollution,global warmings,energy security and tons of additional costs . Solar is on its way to parity with the grid power as well. Even if we assume that I am wrong and wind/solar what is the alternative. Oil,Coal and Gas will ultimately be gone , then what? Read more at http://greenworldinvestor.com

aubrey

actually, he said that coal imports have remained flat

Bob W.

Wow, I seem to be the only one who's reaction is "great, I'm happy to hear both sides of the story!"

(And yes, I'm greatly pro-wind and solar-power.)

Brian

I believe the reason that the consumer gets hosed is because there is a price floor on the cost energy in Denmark. Now this would not be true if the profits from exporting oil are passed on to all of the people in Denmark. But here are the situations:

If the wind is not blowing then demand for energy leads to a price increase.

If the wind is blowing then they dont need their oil and they export enough oil to meet the demand for energy . This would prevent a surplus from happening and thus keeping prices from falling.

Jeffrey

Another gray cloud thanks to Dr. McWilliams! Just when I was beginning the week with a smile, Freakonomics all-too-reliable pessimist comes to save me from happiness! Yay!

Of course, other than raining on the parade, there's not much content here. Sure, Denmark's gains might be overstated. And? The fact that they're getting almost 15% of their energy from wind isn't a great accomplishment. How does increasing offshore drilling and coal imports in order to cut oil imports affect this at all? Did anyone say that we should feel "shame" because of Mr. Obama using Denmark's achievement as a benchmark or example of success? Only Dr. Williams's pessimistic view of everything would take a statement that basically reads "we're doing OK, but we can do a lot better" and find in it "we should feel like guilty jerks because we're not the best."

I see almost no value added for Freakonomics readers in this post. Or any of Dr. Williams's contributions, really.

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Eric M. Jones

It is a bogus argument to point out that some forms of energy production such as solar, wind turbines and sailing ships aren't continuous. So what?

Not much is continuous except for electric power. Perhaps we need to reconsider--if it is going to rain all day, your solar-electrically powered widget factory could take a holiday.

BTW: millions of readers out there in cyberspace are wondering why they just can't put twelve more blades on those skinny three-bladed wind turbines to get more power. Look up Wikipedia "Wind turbine design" and become enlightened.

Dan

Most of this post could be summarized as: Denmark may generate 10-20% of its power from wind, but that means that over 80% of its power comes from non-wind sources. And because wind is intermittent, it can't become too large a share of a country's energy.

Those are fair points, but unfortunately most of the details that are added in the rest of the post don't seem particularly relevant. Much of it focuses on "energy independence," but I don't see why an economist who knows that trade is usually good would care whether goods like oil and turbines are imported or produced domestically. The comparison with the US shows that the US tends to rely more on natural gas, and less on oil and coal, but what does that tell us about wind power? Could you explain what the wind power has replaced in Denmark?

I'm curious about the cause of the disagreement over the wind share of Denmark's energy - 13.4% vs. "almost 20 percent." Wikipedia says that wind accounts for almost 20% of the electricity generated by Denmark, but that Denmark exports a significant chunk of its wind energy to other parts of Europe, so that wind only amounts to 10-14% of the energy used in Denmark. But that explanation doesn't seem consistent with your claim that it accounts for "13.4 percent of all the electricity generated in the country." Unless perhaps you meant the domestically-consumed electricity generated in Denmark?

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hal

As #10 points out, Denmark was recently lauded in NYT for burning garbage. In what was entirely a puff-piece inspired by the incinerator industry, garbage burning was lauded as environmentally pure and pollution free (in Denmark they have apparently mastered removal and recycling of all toxic waste, ash, carcinogens, and CO2). As the US and others have found, burning garbage incentivizes the making of more garbage.

We should be on an energy-based economic system that counts all subsidies - including the US Navy fleet, war in Iraq, and sacrificing the Gulf of Mexico to keep oil cheap.

Sterve

Not a word about energy efficiency, just generation.

Energy efficiency, reducing the amount we use, is much cheaper than generation, regardless if it's natural gas, coal, or, god help us, nuclear. (Much as I like Obama, I'd like him to tell us where the spent fuel goes before we build more nukes.)

Efficient buildings, better building codes, retrofitting, and, yes, CFL lighting saves much more per dollar invested than building new power plants. Guess it's just not sexy enough.