Thirty-odd years ago in the Kingdom of Denmark lived some brave people who disliked nuclear power and loved renewable energy. Determined to keep their country clean and safe, they began building their own wind turbines. Today, thanks to these passionate people, Danes are on their way to getting their heat and electricity from 100% renewable energy.

© Greenpeace

In the early 1970's, in many parts of the world, people started discussing the risks of nuclear power. Although Denmark did not have any nuclear power plants of its own, its neighbour, Sweden already had several, and during the first oil crisis the Danish electricity companies grew eager to build some in Denmark too. A considerable part of the Danish population, however, could not see any good reason why they should have potentially dangerous nuclear energy when they could simply have safe, clean renewable energy instead.


Nuclear, No Thanks

Some dedicated Danes got together and started a popular, politically independent movement: 'The organisation for the dissemination of knowledge about nuclear energy' – a.k.a. the OOA. T-shirts and banners were adorned with the movement's symbol; a smiling red sun on a yellow background, and the words: "Nuclear Power, No Thank You." And, as the movement grew, it also gained political momentum.

The OOA was joined by another movement known as OVE ('The organisation for the development of renewable energy'). Between them they developed two alternative energy plans, one in 1976 and one in 1983, which demonstrated how Denmark could meet its energy demands without the use of nuclear power.

In addition to broad public support, OOA and OVE were powerful because amongst their active participants were dedicated and resourceful scientists and engineers.

'We had no idea what we were starting'Karl Erik Jørgensens' second Wind Turbine: a 3.5 m diameter Multi Blade Wind Rose with 2 kW Generator. © Photo by Henrik Stiesdal

OOA and OVE's mission was to develop clean, renewable energy that would forever end the need for nuclear power. At the heart of the movement were groups of dedicated individuals who refused to sit back and wait for the government to act. Instead they began building their own wind turbines.

"We were almost all complete amateurs," recalls Sanne Wittrup, now a full-time journalist with the Danish News Magazine, 'The Engineer.'

"After the oil crisis, everyone started talking about nuclear energy. We were so eager to demonstrate that it wasn't necessary to go down that road; that there were really good alternatives."

Sanne Wittrup recalls working through the night cutting out the giant steel plates that went into the building of the iconic 2 MegaWatt Tvind Wind Turbine.

"We had absolutely no idea what we were starting. If, back then, someone had told us that, 35 years later, wind power would cover more than 30% of Denmark's electricity demands and generate annual revenue of more than 80 billion Danish Kroner, we would never have believed it."

A nation of self-taught experts

The late 1970's and early 1980's was a special time in Denmark. All over the country, inspired by the oil crisis, individuals began building their own wind turbines. And, rather than the impressively powerful Tvind Wind Turbine, it was the considerably smaller models that kicked off the Danish 'wind adventure.'

"It was, in many ways, a productive and fantastic time. Everyone and no one was a wind energy expert. All over the country people were busy building and learning through trial and error," recalls Sanne Wittrup.

Humble beginnings

Among the self-taught turbine builders was the current head of technology at Siemens Wind Power, Henrik Stiesdal whose experiments began in his parents' backyard. In 1979 he and his partner, a blacksmith, began their first serial production of 15 kW turbines. They later sold the production rights to Danish Vestas, currently the world's largest producer of wind power.

Karl Erik fixing the last details before the crane takes over. © Photo by Henrik Stiesdal

By the early 1980's, the classic Danish three-blade turbine had come to dominate the market and the Danish wind industry was growing steadily.

Victory before disaster

In March 1985, one year before the infamous Chernobyl disaster, a majority in the Danish parliament finally decided to abandon all plans for future incorporation of nuclear power in the Danish energy development plans.

Instead of nuclear energy, the Danish government began investing in energy efficiency, decentralised cogeneration plants, district heating and, importantly, renewable energy. With the local level of expertise and with access to thousands of kilometres of coastline, wind energy was the obvious choice.

To begin with, the Danish government provided 40% of the capital investment required to build a new turbine. This government support allowed production to expand and, by 1985, Denmark controlled half of the, albeit still limited, global market for wind energy. By then the turbines had grown to 55 kW.

Co-owning the wind

To encourage further investments in wind power, the Danish government also gave tax exemptions to households wishing to engage in renewable electricity production. Whilst some households purchased entire wind turbines, more opted for shares in cooperatives, which in turn invested in communal wind turbines.

The scheme was a great success and by 1996 there were approximately 2,100 wind turbine cooperatives in Denmark.

The cooperatives were also not limited to single turbines. When the 20 turbine-strong Middelgrunden Wind Farm was built in 2000 it became the world's largest offshore wind farm. 50% of the wind farm was financed and is currently owned by the 10,000 members of Middelgrunden Wind Turbine Cooperative; the remaining 50% is owned by the municipal utility company.

In 2001, 86% of all new wind turbines were built by wind turbine cooperatives and, by 2004, in a country of 5.5 million people, more than 150,000 households were either cooperative members or turbine owners and the number of turbines in Denmark had grown to 5,500.

Vestas wind turbine factory, Denmark. 08/01/2000 © Greenpeace / Kate Davison

All in favour

Although, in recent years, with increasing private sector involvement, the proportion of cooperatively owned wind turbines has fallen somewhat, the cooperative model remains an undeniable success. Recently, the model has also spread to Germany and the Netherlands.

One major advantage of the participatory model has been its ability to build almost undivided public support for wind energy. Today, 96% of the Danish population are in favour of government policies to further expand the domestic wind industry and 85% are tolerant of such expansions even within their own local area of residence. The take-home message is that, with wind power, some degree of public ownership is desirable because it reduces resistance and builds support.

Turbine adventure

What started as a movement by the people against the threat of nuclear energy has developed into worldwide renewable energy expertise with the Danes now providing cutting edge solutions to a perhaps even bigger threat: Global climate change. Current day masters of the wind and specialists in energy savings and efficiency, Denmark now works closely with China to help transform the carbon intensive Chinese energy supply into a more climate-friendly energy system.

Today, the annual revenue from the Danish wind industry exceeds 80 billion Danish Kroner (more than 14 billion USD), and the sector employs more than 30,000 people. In some regions of the country, up to 25% of private sector jobs are in the wind industry.

People have the power

The tale of the turbines is as instructive as many of the famous fairy tales originating from that same little country. The story demonstrates the achievements that are possible when people come together and make collective demands. And it demonstrates the at times unimaginable ripple effects of fundamentally good ideas. From a childlike drawing of a smiling red sun and a shared desire to create a safe and clean environment for all, to the world's most ambitious climate change policy; this is the power of collective demands. It is replicable and, in the face of climate change, urgently needed.

Wind energy's many benefits

  • By 2020, 50% of Denmark's electricity demands will be met by wind power.
  • Denmark's focus on renewable energy has boosted the economy, reduced reliance on volatile fossil fuel prices and created thousands of jobs.
  • Denmark is currently one of the few countries in the world to have committed to a 100% renewable energy future – the only truly sustainable way to go to protect our climate.
  • By 2035 global wind energy use is expected to have cumulatively avoided 50,000 million tons of CO2 emissions. To put this in context, this is 1200 times the Denmark CO2 annual emissions in 2013, and more than last year's global CO2 emissions.

Right now the Intergovernmental on Climate Change is meeting in Denmark to finalize a report about climate change which will go to our world leaders.

Join us in telling our leaders to act for the climate.

Kat Skeie is a Communications Officer and Tarjei Haaland is a Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic.