The hill is steep, but my bike is flying forwards. On the horizon, three tall, white structures emerge, marking my destination. Their wings stretch outward, spinning slowly, propelled by the same invisible force as I am – the wind at my back.
The Research Establishment Risø was established in the 1950s to investigate the possibilities of nuclear energy. Following the oil crisis of the 1970s and the parliamentary decision to abandon nuclear energy, its focus shifted toward renewable energy. In 2008, Risø became an institute under the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and the sprawling, leafy campus on the shores of Roskilde Fjord is now home to several departments.
Among them is DTU Wind, a global leader in interdisciplinary wind energy research. Through education, innovation and research-based consulting with the industry, they “push the limits of the technical sciences in the development of wind energy”. Their work supports an industry that employs 31,000 people and had a turnover of over 88 billion kroner in 2015.
But there is turbulence on the horizon. Public funding for wind energy research has been cut in recent years, just as countries such as Germany and Spain are increasing their investments in wind energy research, eroding Denmark’s competitive edge.
“Unless we continue to develop knowledge and know-how in Denmark, why would these companies continue to operate in Denmark in 10 years’ time?” asks Peter Hauge Madsen, head of DTU Wind.
“Siemens and Vestas are here because so much development happens in Denmark. It’s a testing ground more than a real market for these companies. These are global companies, and most of their production is not being installed in Denmark. Making sure they stay here is about securing jobs and income – about maintaining a viable industrial sector in Denmark.”
Madsen has worked with wind for a long time. After completing a PhD in stochastic mechanics, he went on to run a windmill test centre at the age of 33, and has been department head at DTU Wind for the past four years.
He recalls crawling around in the cramped confines of a wind turbine nacelle – the casing that holds the generating components atop the tower – in the 1980s, when turbines were far smaller than they are today.
“Now the big turbines have as much space in them as a small apartment – you could almost live in them,” he says as he drives me around the scenic Risø campus.
But while wind turbines may look like effortlessly simple objects – blades connected to a nacelle that sits upon a tower – they are made up of more than 8000 parts, which leaves plenty of room for improvement.
“In 1920, cars had four wheels and an engine. Has nothing changed since then? That’s not really the case, is it? Nor is it with wind turbines,” he explains.
Later, he drives me to a test windmill that has four small sets of blades rather than one large set. The idea is that they might be easier to transport to inaccessible areas of Africa that don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate trucks carrying 40-metre-long blades.
Madsen explains that the goal of modern wind turbine research is to make them reliable and economical sources of energy. This requires specialised research into controls, materials, sensors, hydraulics and aerodynamics, and so on. As the number of wind turbines installed around the world increases, improving their efficiency by just a few percentage points can make a dramatic impact on total energy production.
Renewable energy system
Denmark set a world record in 2015 when it produced 42 percent of its electricity from wind, compared to just 2.5 percent globally.One day in September, Denmark was powered entirely by wind.
But Danish wind turbines aren’t just good for reducing carbon emissions in Denmark, where they offset the use of coal and gas power stations. When Denmark produces a surplus of electricity from its windmills, it can sell the power to its neighbours, such as Sweden, Germany and Norway. And when Denmark is running low – or when it’s cheaper to import surplus hydropower from Norway than it is to switch on a power plant – Denmark can buy electricity back.
This interconnected energy market reduces the impact of wind power’s major drawback – turbines only work when it’s windy.
“Wind is variable, but if you have a wind farm in Jutland, it won’t produce at the same time as one in Zealand. So if you can transmit power across a network, there tends to be a steady average,” explains Madsen.
This averaging effect is why the EU established the Energy Union, to better integrate Europe’s energy markets. The larger the system, the cheaper it is to integrate renewable energy – wind, solar, wave and hydro – and the more stable the prices. Progress has been limited, however, and the EU needs to improve the interconnectedness of its energy markets if it is to successfully transition to a low-carbon economy.
While Madsen blames bureaucracy for the delay in connecting energy markets, he also argues that the slow uptake of renewable energy in some European countries can be attributed to faulty incentive structures.
“The energy field is full of taxes. So while from a climate point of view it makes a lot of sense to focus energy on wind production, it might make more sense to investors to import biomass from the Baltics and use that. It’s extremely complicated, because as you start changing the regulations and taxes, it changes early investments. So figuring out the right incentives may be as important as figuring out the technology.”
How they research
Still, improving the technology is vital if wind power is to continue its steady climb in popularity around the world – and DTU Wind plays a central role in that mission. Wind energy accounts for around five percent of Denmark’s total exports, a figure that has been relatively stable over the past decade.
The close relationship between research centres like DTU Wind and the private sector helped get the industry on its feet. But it was the creation of a renewable energy market in 1980s California that really got the ball rolling.
“It was an accident – nobody in Denmark could have dreamed that a market would open in California. What has kept the Danish industry going since then is a unique and complete cluster of manufacturers, customers, power companies, suppliers, universities and technical institutes. We have everything in Denmark, which is not the case in other countries, because we developed the industry. This is what makes Denmark attractive for companies today – they can find everything they need close by. They don’t have to go to China to get a component, or to Italy to get expertise. We have it all here.”
At DTU Wind, businesses are involved in around 90 percent of research projects. The collaboration is often very close and ranges from basic public research to applied research and commissions. Madsen argues that it’s a strength that the collaborations are broad and can involve many disciplines, depending on the challenges.
“You could say we have a mission-orientated department, rather than being defined by a technical field or discipline. It also means that when there is a problem, we look around to see if we have the skills, and if we don’t, we start looking for someone to help tackle the challenge. The focus is wind and our goal is to identify the problems and how they match our competencies.”
Funds drying up
The Danish wind energy industry could see major growth in the coming years as the global wind market is set to triple before 2030, according to a study by Damvad. Exports from Denmark have dipped a little in recent years, however, as countries such as Spain and Germany are starting to increase their investments in the increasingly competitive market.
But Madsen is worried. Without a strong public research sector, there is no guarantee that the private sector will continue to operate in Denmark. The private sector invests four kroner for every one invested by the public sector, but public investment in wind research has declined about 25 percent since its peak in 2010.
The decline in funding coincides with the current Liberal Party (Venstre) government, whose renewable energy policies have been far less ambitious than the former Social Democrat government, which committed Denmark to ending its reliance on fossil fuels by 2050.
Last October, Siemens warned that it might start looking to invest in other countries if the government followed through with threats to reduce its support of renewable energy, potentially threatening the 10,000 jobs they have created in the country.
“Over the last few years, we have seen public money for research decline, in part based on the understanding that wind technology is seen as mature and doesn’t need more research,” says Madsen. “But unless we are competitive in research, why would you base your development here too? If you can get better tools and assistance somewhere else, why have 30,000 jobs in Denmark?”
One problem, according to Madsen, is that institutes like DTU Wind have difficulty selling their value to funding bodies. Their approach is strategic, supporting an industry, whereas funding bodies often prefer to reward research that produces new ideas or specific new products.
“This is a long-term sector, where we say, for example, that we really need to develop aerodynamics to upscale turbines and make them lighter and reduce costs. But that doesn’t fit in. Our role is to support a sector with the tools, knowledge and testing they need to develop their products. But this is an area that has had lower priority in recent years. We are surviving, but that’s because we have more work that is paid by industry.”
Madsen refuses to comment specifically on the government’s policies on research and renewable energy, but says there is obviously a clear difference between their priorities and those of the former government.
“It is unfortunate – it’s a sector that provides five percent of exports and 30,000 jobs, and I think it’s worth fighting to maintain and strengthen that.”
Of course, the wind energy industry serves a loftier purpose than just keeping Danes in work – they are a major tool in the in the fight against climate change. Coal, gas and oil-fired power plants release greenhouse gasses, such as CO2, into the atmosphere, that slowly warm the planet. The transition to carbon-neutral forms of energy, such as wind, wave and solar power, is vital if concentrations of the gasses are to be stabilised and ultimately reduced.
Despite enormous political effort, the transition to renewable energy is still not taking place quickly enough to avert climate change. Most climate scientists accept that the planet will warm at least two degrees by 2100. A warmer planet will have a devastating effect on global food cultivation and ecosystems by shifting weather patterns and increasing extreme weather events.
More storms might mean more wind, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we will get more out of the turbines.
“We won’t get more out of wind, but the variability will be larger – the storms will get larger. But that won’t be a big problem for turbines. In a big storm you can make the turbine almost invisible by turning its profile. This is an advantage compared to wave energy generators that have to lie in the waves and can’t really escape when the weather gets too rough. A turbine is a very efficient structure. They only weigh the equivalent of the volume of air passing through every few seconds. They really are rather amazing.” M