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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.