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.

Joel Upchurch

What Mr. Bryce says is no secret to anyone who has actually studied the economics of wind and solar power. The fact have just been ignored or suppressed by the proponents of these "green" power sources. The truth is that these power sources have to be 100% backed up by coal and natural gas to provide reliable power, which makes for very expensive electricity.

Eventually the economic facts will catch up with Denmark, just like they caught up with Spain's solar push.

The fact of the matter is that the reliable green solution for baseload power is nuclear energy. The nations of Asia realize this and are building nuclear power plants as fast as they can and at less than half the price we have to pay for the very same plants.

The problem isn't NIMBYs either. Local people want the jobs that a nuclear plant will bring. It is fly-in environmentalists that don't want nuclear power in anybody's backyard. Until we get these people and the NRC under control, we are going to continue to burn coal and pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while they continue their Wind and Solar fantasies.



What is Koch Industries going to do about this?
Tell fisherman it's a conspiracy of mermaids?

Tasos Krommydas

You incorrectly state that wind accounts for 13.4 percent of all the electricity generated in the country.

According to the International Energy Agency, that figure for 2007 was 18.3%

James Walker

Denmark actually has to import nuclear and hydro electric power from sweden, Germany, and Norway at high cost and exports wind power at a loss. They have higher coal consumption in their energy mix than the U.S. because we get twenty percent of our energy from nuclear power, and another twenty plus from natural gas.

Ashim Roy

Did Freakonmics Inc been acquired by Big Oil recently? This article seems to suggest that. Why else would someone have an issue with a country that is generating 13% energy from renewable sources? The common problem with renewable sources such as solar or wind energy is that it is not available all the time. That is no reason why people should not consider it. If the renewable sources reduce dependence on oil economically, it is good thing for everyone except for Big Oil.

Be fair guys, even if you are part of Big Oil now!


"Reliant on China for turbines"? Turbines are currently being churned out as fast as they can make them at the Siemens plant in Southeast Iowa. Use all you want; we'll make more...

Ed Griffiths

Denmark is widely cited in the UK by wind sceptics as an example of why wind won't work & how wind does not displace need for conventional power stations & still needs massive conventional back up...

There may be special circumstances in Denmark which make it a poor example for wind power usage - for example I believe grid connectivity isn't good (and incidentally the article doesn't mention Denmark exports surplus wind power, in return for Norwegian hydro electric when wind is calm).

The UK has about 4.5 GW of wind generation, 1 GW of which is offshore and is committed to building up to 56 GW - yes, fity-six GW - of wind in the next 10 years, mostly offshore, with some supporting grid improvements & export capability. (UK max demand today is around 60 GW: with 78 GW installed power plants).

I honestly can't find whether this wid expansion will significantly displace conventional power or how much back up needed or what % of the generation capacity will be used on average...

I'm optimistic that on average it'll be running at over 30% and that only about 30% of that generation capacity will need to be backed up.

There are new turbine factories opening in the UK to provide required turbines & much other investment, so I'd say US could surely do same and create some jobs...

Also, UK wave/tidal is set for major take off, with 1.5 GW of wave/tidal about to be built off N Scotland (in the Orkney islands). This looks like a major player in the next 10 years.

For a (UK based figures) alternative view to Robert Bryce, see 'sutainability without the hot air' at :

..I believe the author notes that energy efficiency in the home will only be suffcient to absorb increasing demand...


Eric M. Jones


Agree but ditch the CFL lighting suggestion. LEDs are taking over virtually all lighting on the planet quite soon. They are also far more efficient, last longer, and have no mercury.

I just got my newest LED flashlight (Google "Deal Extreme"). It takes a single AA battery, is hardly any bigger than one, and is bright enough to use for a night bike riding light. I have now installed several LED lamps in our house with dozens more to come, but the price is still high, and they get better every day.

Christopher Strom

Like many of the other commentors, I reacted initially to McWilliams' post with disdain for his glass-is-half-empty treatment of rosy assessments of Denmark's energy policies.

But on rereading and reflection, I think the nugget that should have been the core of the post was relegated to a brief mention at the close of the piece:

"For all the intuitive appeal of renewable energy ... 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."

I believe this to be the key (even the only relevant) point regarding the future of energy.

- Fossil fuels exist a in fixed supply. Due to their relatively low cost, we will eventually consume them all.

- With our current renewable energy technologies, we are unlikely to be able to replace current fossil energy demand. (One cannot bank on undiscovered technologies to save us in the future, and there is a huge energy cost in making turbines and photovoltaics, blogged about here before.)

- Nuclear power is the only existing technology that can bridge the gap between global energy demand and renewable energy supply. (Problems with reactor design and waste handling/treatment/disposal are political in nature, not technological.)

In the future, we will consume all the fossil fuels that can be extracted, processed, and transported with a net energy gain. As they are depleted, energy will become more costly, and we will consume less and use what we consume more efficiently. We will maximize our utilization of renewables, and nuclear power will be all that is left to make up the difference.

With what we know today, there is no alternative.


Bobby G

Obama citing improper numbers to promote his agenda??? I never thought I'd see the day.

Sarcasm aside, it's nice to see that there are people who have the courage to run the numbers on all the fuzzy, green things that people get so swept up about these days. On a somewhat related tangent, I think we're doing exactly that with socialized health care... it sounds so great, but hasn't worked economically anywhere... yet we're pursuing it in this country now and, to top it off, somehow people are saying it will be good for our economy. Sigh.

Bobby G

Also, comment #25 is the exact strategy used by people who want to ignore data because that data may go against what "sounds right"

Dan L.

"What Mr. Bryce says is no secret to anyone who has actually studied the economics of wind and solar power. The fact have just been ignored or suppressed by the proponents of these "green" power sources. The truth is that these power sources have to be 100% backed up by coal and natural gas to provide reliable power, which makes for very expensive electricity."

Who the heck is suppressing the facts? Or even denying them? Wind can never completely replace fossil fuels for obvious reasons. Who's claiming it can?

The "proponents of these 'green' power sources" are simply saying that every kilowatt hour generated by wind or solar is a kilowatt hour that isn't generated by burning fossil fuels, and that WHEN POSSIBLE, it is desirable to generate power through wind, solar, geothermal, or hydroelectric rather than burning fossil fuels.

You econ types should be pretty familiar with the notion of diversification. Let's get our energy from a bunch of different sources to prevent the problems of being dependent on any one source.

I haven't seen too many environmentalist or greeny types insisting that we ban all fossil fuels now. They're mostly saying that we should subsidize research into renewable sources of energy, usually for the following reasons:
a) the cost of fossil fuels is artificially low, because it does not account for externalities or implicit government subsidies
b) total military and economic dependence on one source of energy is a bad strategic position in both domains
c) extracting, refining, and burning fossil fuels is much worse for the environment than producing an equivalent amount of energy using wind, solar, or hydro
d) despite the special rules of economics that prevent anyone from predicting technological innovation, there is a great deal of empirical evidence that subsidizing research into a technology steadily decreases the cost of that technology over time
e) oil's gonna run out some day, yo. This will be a serious problem not just because of energy -- try to count how many different objects and devices made of plastic you've used throughout the day. Go to an emergency room and take stock of all the plastic used in medical equipment. Every barrel of oil burned is plastic that we can't make (and plastic can be recycled, where the spent fuel certainly can't). Before it runs out, it will get harder to find and the price of oil -- and therefore the price of plastic, and therefore the cost of just about everything -- will most likely rise pretty precipitously. Not to mention the petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides that the US agricultural economy depends on.

But I don't see these arguments being addressed. I see people accusing advocates of renewable energy of being zealots, liars, frauds, and worse. I see ridicule and invective and a bunch of cocktail napkin calculations proving that solar energy could nevah evah be cost competitive with fossil fuels.

Truth be told, I'd take the "anti" arguments a lot more seriously if those making them took the "pro" arguments at all seriously.



@colin: the problem with the free market is that it brings precisely those people in power who will never ever actually tax pollution. if it weren't like that, i would nearly change my camp. and one more thought: nothing is more market-like than renewable energy. it is not too big to fail like big power plants, and it is decentral, leading to more innovation and better diffusion of innovation.

also, i think you can make money with updated grids. those can lead to huge investments.

in the end, time will tell who faired better - denmark or the us.

Steve B

As a nuclear engineer who worked in the plants from 1975-1990, I finally got fed up with the ridiculous attitudes towards nuclear power. As an environmentalist - yes I am - I always thought we should build nuclear and NOT coal and oil and gas. Why burn fossil fuels? What sense does that rally make? Uranium has only really one good use. And disposal is actually quite easy and not expensive - unless you let the politicians establish the rules, so you cannot actually dispose of it (thanks Harry Reid). The French, Japanese and Brits use the recycling and disposal technology we invented and gave them. Works quite well. Then I went into energy efficiency and watched the government try to take over and ruin good, effective programs. Finally, in the early part of this decade I switched to building wind farms, figuring that could not be opposed in any way by anybody. Boy, was I WRONG! 400 people showed up to oppose our first small wind farm in Wisconsin. 10 years to build an offshore wind farm in Massachusetts. Only place to build them easily is in remote parts of KS and IA, and the transmission lines are even opposed there. Hmmm - but don't turn off your computer or HDTV or hot tub..........


Joonas Kekoni

Most of energy is consumed mid winter, because of the need of heating and light.

Wind does not blow mid winter.

Thus every KW invested in wind need equal amount of KW in other source to be used during peak.

NOTE: This may be different in countries, where air conditioning eats the energy, not the heat+light. It is however very true in Finland and i would assume other countries in the north too.

This equation may change, IF we can commercialice usage of kites in upper atmosphere. There the wind blows all the time.

Mike Keller

The consumer gets hosed because he has to pay the cost (including debt repayment and profit) for an asset that only runs perhaps 25% of the time. When you run the numbers (and I have) the cost of power is extremely high, even considering that the fuel is "free". Adding insult to injury, the consumer still has to pay for conventional power plants, that now run less time and must therefore charge a higher price to cover costs and return on invested equity.

Renewable energy is simply not competitive which is why the industry pleads for bailouts.


I saw an interesting graph a few moths ago comparing Irelands (lots of wind) electricity usage versus available wind. The grid became dangerously overloaded on 3 occasions over the last few years. On each of those wind. The quicker we go nuclear the better.


Lol, right wing liberals are funny. It's not 13.4 %, it's 19.7 %, that is, approximately 20 %.


The article was basically a good book review, nothing more. Most of the folks commenting here need to read the book themselves and stop embarrassing themselves with ignorant comments. This is an important topic that is very, very misunderstood, thanks to the wind industry's PR campaign, which is designed to mislead the masses.

Peter Henningsen

For those interested, here is a link showing Denmarks present production and import/export of electricity (updated every minute):

The text is in Danish only, sorry.
'kraftværker' = large power plants (mostly coal, but also waste and biofuel).
'vindmøller' = wind turbines.
'Havvindmøller' = off shore wind turbine parks
'Elforbrug' = total use of electricity.
'Norge' = Norway
'Sverige' = Sweden
'Tyskland' = Germany