By Donella Meadows
–September 13, 1990–
The energy wars are back. Not the ones in the deserts of the Middle East, but the ones in national capitals the oil-using world around, where energy policies are again being formulated in an atmosphere of panic and conflict.
The battle is the same everywhere. It is between the hard path (oil, coal, nuclear, and defense of the Middle East) and the soft path (solar, conservation, and self-sufficiency). These two approaches appear to be ideological lightning rods. The people who favor one side aren’t fond of those who favor the other, to put it mildly.
There are plenty of impassioned strategists in this war; there’s brilliant firepower of the sort possible when you do theory on paper instead of tests in the world. On paper this war will never end. The only thing that can resolve it is experimentation. Therefore we can be thankful for Denmark, one of the few places in the world that is seriously trying the soft path and demonstrating both its long-term possibilities and its short-term difficulties.
Denmark has the world’s highest energy taxes — at the moment $1.10 per gallon of gasoline and $1.17 per gallon of fuel oil. The rates vary according to the world market price in order to keep the domestic price constant, which protects consumers from the market’s ups and downs. Energy taxes provide six percent of government revenue just now.
Contrary to hard-path theory, these taxes have not compromised either the vigor of the Danish economy or the nation’s high standard of living. Instead they have brought forth creativity in saving energy. The Danes use half as much energy to produce a dollar of GNP as we do, and they’re planning to do better than that.
Between 1979 and 1984 $2 billion of the energy taxes were used for a 30 percent subsidy on home insulation. That program brought about a 30 percent decrease in the use of heating energy, while the area heated increased by 20 percent. The Danes believe it is possible to decrease their heating energy use by yet another 50 percent.
In 1980 the government offered a 30 percent subsidy for new wind energy installations. In 1988 that subsidy was cut back to 15 percent, and this year it was phased out, because even without it windmills were returning 15-25 percent on investment. The ten years of subsidy created a whole new industry. Denmark now has 45 percent of the world market share in windmills, its main customer being California.
Soft path advocates see in the Danish windmill story an example of how renewable energy technologies are possible, create jobs, and quickly pay their own way. Hard path advocates see how slowly they add up. Wind currently supplies only three percent of Denmark’s electricity use. The goal is to double that by 2005.
The technology of wind energy is improving rapidly, but, as with every form of energy, there are problems with esthetics and environmental impact. Because siting on land is difficult, the Danes are planning the world’s first offshore windmill park, which will consist of eleven 400 kilowatt mills. Says Niels Meyer, who is on the planning commission for this windpark, “It’s not easy to put windmills offshore. I’m surprised at all that comes up — fish, birds, airplanes. There are lots of problems.”
Inevitable problems on the cutting edge of twenty-first century technology, says the soft path. They’ll get worked out. Evidence that renewable energy is an impractical dream, says the hard path. (When it comes to the problems of nuclear power, both sides abruptly switch positions.)
The latest Danish energy plan calls for a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2005, a 60 percent reduction in SO2 emissions, and a 50 percent decrease in NOx. (By comparison the U.S. is trying to pass a Clean Air Act calling for no reduction in CO2, 35 percent in SO2, and 6 percent in NOx.) By 2030 the goals are even more ambitious — a 50 percent reduction in CO2, and 35 percent of energy to be provided by domestic renewable sources.
These goals will be reached through a shift from coal and oil to natural gas, a doubling in renewable energy use, and a great increase in energy efficiency. There will be strict building codes, energy-use labels on products, demonstration projects, financial support for renewable energy, and energy taxes that go higher the more you use. Emissions taxes on large industries are planned — $2.50 per kilogram of SO2 released, $16 per ton of CO2, an amount still unspecified on NOx. Charge a high price for pollution, reason the Danes, and let industries decide for themselves the best ways to reduce it.
The big argument in Denmark now is whether this plan goes far enough. The soft-path advocates say it includes too much natural gas, too little renewable energy and conservation, and too much economic growth. Why do the Danes need to get any richer, they ask, and what would be the real costs of doing so?. Polls show that two-thirds of the Danish people would choose shorter working time (for the same pay) over more pay. Half would even choose shorter working time with less pay.
The biggest threat to the Danish energy experiment, however, is not dissension within Denmark, but another ambitious experiment: the European Common Market. As the Danes give up part of their sovereignty to a larger entity, they may lose their freedom to determine their own energy future.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. No one actually knows the way into a new century of secure, sustainable, non-polluting energy. The more experiments, the better.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990