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Green-Tinted Denmark Hosts Climate Conference. But Is Denmark a Model?

COPENHAGEN—Today begins a 3-day conference on climate research meant to lay out the scientific case for the world's next major climate agreement. Diplomats hope to hammer out that deal 8 months from now right here in Orestad, a new high-tech neighborhood on the southern outskirts of Denmark's capital.

The venue into which some 2500 scientists are cramming couldn't be more evocative of an advanced energy future. The low-lying and funky apartment buildings in the growing neighborhood evoke green living and were built with a variety of sustainability measures; the Bella Center conference space, where this meeting is being held and the December one will occur, sits under a slowly tilting 75-meter-tall wind turbine that Vestas, its builder, tells me provides the energy that about 300 families would use. The shopping mall here charges customers for plastic bags, and incandescent light bulbs are hard to find there. The toilet paper in the neighborhood is recycled and rough.

Later this morning in a speech at the congress, Danish Minister of Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard will lay out the case for Denmark as a global model of sustainability, no doubt mentioning its position as a leader in the use of renewable energy. The nation's roughly 6000 windmills provide one-fifth of the nation's energy—easily the biggest renewable chunk of any nation's energy picture.

But how green is Denmark, really?

As of a November report by the European Union environment office, Denmark was among three members of the E.U., along with Italy and Spain, expected not to reach its Kyoto target for carbon emissions (Denmark's target is a whopping 21% reduction below its 1990 emission levels; the nation is currently 35% above that level, according to the latest figures from 2006). The reason, according to the report, was that Denmark had increased its burning of coal and decreased the amount of renewable energy it imported.

Hedegaard will likely mention plans to improve Denmark's emissions picture, including new standards for efficient vehicles, new research, and more renewable power added to the grid. But Denmark's experience with wind energy provides an enlightening and sobering view of the renewable energy challenge.

Denmark became a world leader in wind energy technology out of necessity, after the 1973 oil embargo, when the nation decided to build up its wind energy base given its lack of other resources such as coal or natural gas. The nation's power companies benefited from the fact that the country sits on the edge of the North Sea, receiving long gusts coming across the water. Denmark's proximity to Germany and Sweden, which connects with their energy grid, are crucial pieces of the puzzle; because wind energy can be wildly intermittent, Germany can accept excess power from Denmark on very windy days, and on days when Denmark falls short it can get excess power from Sweden's hydroenergy network, which can be quickly turned on to react. (Other countries—such as the United States—very much lack an energy infrastructure that can work better with renewable power, hence President Barack Obama's emphasis on the so-called smart grid in the stimulus package.)

Wind energy hasn't come cheap. Energy is no less expensive for citizens in Denmark than it is for citizens in other countries, and the nation has paid for its position as a world leader in wind energy through billions of kroner in subsidies, taxes on its citizens, and government investment.

Yet the nation seems headed in the right direction. The imposing wind turbine by the Bella Center is "our smallest," says a spokesperson for Vestas. The world's leading wind turbine company, Vestas will make a major announcement tomorrow about a new partnership with an American company, he says. That's probably a good sign, because the world has plenty to learn from the Danes. Their efforts show how tough changing the world's energy supply will be, and there's no question scientists at this conference are rooting for Hedegaard and her efforts, because if Denmark can't do it, no one else can.