“Don’t worry, we will try it again.” The headmaster’s frustrated yet encouraging words were met with smirks and giggles by the journalists around the piano struggling to keep a straight face as we half-heartedly sang ‘Let it Be’. One had to admire his tenacity in trying to convert this group of hardened (and tone-deaf) international journalists to his lifestyle of self-enlightenment through group singing of ‘60’s hippie anthems, all sung out of a small blue-binded book that resembled a church hymnal.
I was part of a group of journalists being led on a tour of Denmark taking a look at environment-related projects they have there. As a base we stayed at a “folk high school” in central Jutland overlooking a beautiful lake, normally populated by young adults on a quest to find themselves (a quest that is half government-funded I might add). The headmaster’s efforts to teach us the ways of being in harmony with the earth were quite adorable, if in the end unsuccessful. We may have been environment reporters, but we’re still cynical journalists after all!
Yet as cynical as we were, you didn’t have to be a hippie to be impressed by Denmark’s pioneering green efforts. The tour was linked in to the hugely important UN climate change summit that will be held in Copenhagen in December. The meeting was pushed three years ago by Denmark with the intention of giving nations a firm deadline by which to be ready for a worldwide agreement on how to combat climate change. Denmark has been a natural leader in this fight, having been one of the earliest movers in environmental legislation. It was the first country to establish an environment ministry in 1973. Since a dispute with OPEC in the ‘70’s it has weaned itself almost completely off oil, now getting its electricity from a mixture of renewable energy and coal. It set up its first wind turbines in the 70’s and today wind power provides 20% of Denmark’s power generation (renewables in total provide 28%), The country is well positioned to meet the EU’s requirement of 30% energy consumption from renewables by 2020, and it is planning to go even further.
We were on our way to visit one of these wind turbine farms far out in the North Sea on Tuesday when some of us realized we were in for more than we had bargained for. We were taken out for the 8 hour sea voyage in a small wooden boat which, though beautiful, took us for a wild ride as we bounced up and down on the tempestuous sea. It was quite an experience, and as the wooden boat creaked and moaned its way out from the Danish port of Estbjerg in Southwest Jutland, I could really get a sense of what ye olde long sea voyages must have been like (i.e., not pleasant!).
As we neared the windfarm site of Horns Rev, feared by sailors for centuries because of its wild winds and shallow waters, the boat began to literally leap up and down from the sea, and we all had to hold on to keep from being knocked over. A number of the journalists started losing their lunch over the side of the boat. Luckily I had taken a motion sickness tablet in the morning so I was ok.
When we finally reached the garden of turbines jutting majestically up from the sea, it was undeniably impressive. These things are massive, rising 115 metres into the air. The blades alone are 45 metres in length. Much of the objection to setting up wind turbines has been that they make a lot of noise, and yet I can attest that even though these blades are the size of a football pitch, I couldn’t hear anything even when the ship was right next to them (granted, the waves were pretty loud). Just one of these turbines supplies energy to 2,200 households. In total the whole Horns Rev site provides 350,000 households with power.
But the project hasn’t been an unblemished success. When they first installed the turbines there was a problem with the gears. Essentially they weren’t strong enough to handle the massive amount of wind in this area of the ocean. So all of the turbines had to be retrofitted with new motors, costing wind turbine company Vestas a massive amount to fix them.
We met with the CEO of Vestas on Wednesday, and I asked him about their recent decision to pull out of the UK which has resulted in demonstrations and a plant takeover on the Isle of Wight. He said straight up that the UK is not an attractive market for investment in onshore wind power right now, and now that the US has opened up as a renewables market with the Obama administration’s climate bill, they are focusing their energy there. That may be making the UK government quite nervous, as environment minister Ed Milliband just announced a big target for wind energy in the UK. Does this target reflect economic reality when the private sector seems to be wary of wind in the UK? I’m working on an article on this topic for the September ENDS Europe report.
Clean Houses and Dirty Waste
I actually had the opportunity on this junket to do two things I had also done on the Holland junket in June – visit a waste incineration plant and an energy-generating house.
It was interesting to compare and contrast the Dutch and Danish versions of these two things. The waste incineration plant was pretty similar, both in terms of its capacity to generate electricity and district heating and in its set-up. But the energy house was different in some significant ways. Whereas the Dutch version had been specifically designed to look like an average home and to be affordable in scale, the Danish house we looked at was designed as a luxury home.
I have to admit, the one in Denmark was a gorgeous house. It had an enormous amount of windows, meant to reduce the need to use lights during the day but that were also able to stop the sun from heating up the interior by being recessed. It also had a wind/temperature reading device at the top that would adjust the settings in the house to be the most energy-efficient. It would use its calculation of the speed and direction of the wind and temperature to automatically open and shut windows in the house and close/open shades. The entire thing was controlled by this futuristic control panel in the kitchen that gave out readings for the energy use of the whole home.
However the cost, at 5 million Danish crowns, would be prohibitive for any middle-class family in Denmark. Looking at it I got the impression I was seeing the house of the future, but perhaps not the practical energy-efficient house of today. It definitely looked nicer than the Dutch house, with almost unnoticeable solar panels built right into the roof as opposed to the obvious ones on the roof of the Dutch house (and also no wind turbine, which was good because the turbine on the roof of the Dutch house didn’t look very nice). But realistically, could anyone really afford to live in the Danish luxury house?
Both Denmark and the Netherlands are one of the few countries to offer feed-in tariffs for households with solar panels or wind turbines, letting customers actually output the excess energy they generate into the power grid. They then build up a credit with the power company and they can work off that credit when they need to take in energy from the grid at night whhile the sun isn’t out (a battery for just one house would be prohibitively expensive even for the luxury home). One interesting difference though was that in the Dutch house, if you didn’t use all the excess energy you had generated at day during the night, the power company would pay you for the leftover energy. In the Danish feed-in tariff system, that payment is not available.
Next week I’m going to pop up to Camden in London to take a look at such an energy house in the UK, where there is no feed-in tariff regime available at all. With the UK rather notoriously lacking in sunlight, I wonder how this Camden house can possibly be cost-effective.
One of our final stops yesterday was at the main Danish Crown abattoir outside Arhus. It’s the second largest slaughterhouse in Europe, in a country which leads the continent in pork exports. It kills an astonishing 87,000 pigs a week (17,500 every weekday) and we saw the whole process from start to finish. The facility is brand new, and almost everything in it is automatic. Each pig is stunned, killed, bled, gutted, chopped up and ready in less than a minute.
I’d never seen a slaughterhouse before, and wondered how I would react to it. It’s kind of a gross thing to watch, but as a meat-eater I felt I’m obligated to watch the process. It actually wasn’t all that surprising, in fact it was cleaner and more efficient than I was expecting. The actual moment of death was fascinating to watch, a man shoves a blade into each pigs throat one after the other in rapid succession as they come through hanging on a conveyor belt, limp and unconscious. It’s an almost constant in-out-in-out with the blade. Gruesomely efficient. Seeing it didn’t really change my opinion about eating meet. I’m dating a vegetarian right now and my flatmate is one as well, so I get a lot of pressure to convert.
After the slaughterhouse we went next door to see the biogas plant that uses the fat and unused organs from the pigs to produce biodiesel for use in cars. The EU has set a discretionary target for using biodiesel, although this is a bit up in the air now given the controversy over ethanol disrupting food supply. Biodiesel from animal fat is really the “good” kind of such fuel, as it’s made from animal parts that would just have been thrown out anyway rather than from food that could have been eaten.
Uncover the Bridge!
I spent Wednesday evening in Arhus, which is really a lovely town. It was amazing to see its transformation from a rather gritty port to a lovely preserved Scandinavian town. The river running through it had long ago been covered over and made into a road, with the water running under it in pipes (something unfortunately done in many European cities during industrialisation). But earlier this decade they decided to uncover it, making an actual river with a lovely pedestrian walkway running along it. We were given a tour by an architect instrumental in the design, who is now also involved in the redevelopment of the port into a knowledge-based business centre. Seeing the results, I wondered if the same thing could be accomplished in Brussels, where the Senne river was covered up a century ago. It would certainly go a long way in making Brussels a nicer place to be, something it badly needs.
Overall it was impressive to see all the green progress Denmark has made, and it was interesting to hear the observations and comparisons by the other journalists from around the world. Just like on the Holland trip we had a significant contingent from Brazil, who were particularly interested in the biodiesel. And once again I was the only American in the group.
Sitting in the main hall at the folk high school, I had a rather funny experience that showed how much my self-identification has changed over the past three years. At one point the headmaster was telling a story about an epiphany he had in Africa on a safari, and he was about to say something unflattering about some Americans with him there (Americans are often used as a foil in European anecdotes!) when he stopped and checked – “Oh, do we have any Americans here tonight?” There was a period of silence, and then I suddenly realized everyone was looking at me. “Oh right, I’m kind of American, I guess” I said sheepishly. I had literally forgotten for a minute there! Perhaps I only remember I’m American when people are telling flattering stories, not when someone’s about to launch into a diatribe. But usually, European stories about Americans fall into the second category!
All in all a fun trip. Now I’ve got two whole weeks in London without travel. Time to relax!