Arriving in the Danish capital by sea, the visitor's first glimpse of the country is the Middelgrunden Wind Farm, a row of 20 enormous wind turbines gently spinning above the waves nearly two miles offshore.
Completed in December, Middelgrunden is the world's largest offshore wind farm, dominating the views from Copenhagen's docks and seaside parks. With blades 100-feet long, its wind machines generate enough power to supply 32,000 households.
It's a fitting introduction to Denmark, a nation of 5 million that has emerged as the undisputed leader in wind energy.
Renewable, nonpolluting wind power has been the world's fastest-growing energy source in recent years, averaging 24 percent annual growth during the 1990s, 37 percent in 1999, and 26 percent last year. Wind is now a $4 billion industry able to produce 17,000 megawatts of electricity, or enough to supply some 6 million US homes.
"The last few years have seen tremendous growth," says Vicky Pollard of the European Wind Energy Association in Brussels. "With natural-gas prices rising and our costs falling, wind is now competitive in many parts of the world."
The industry expects record-setting growth in 2001, spurred by rising international concern over global warming and greenhouse-gas emissions. The Washington-based American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) expects more than 5,000 megawatts of new wind farms to be completed worldwide this year, led by new projects in the US.
"What we've seen ... in California has got utilities rethinking the value of diversifying their sources of electricity," says AWEA Executive Director Randall Swisher. "Given the economics and environmental benefits, there's no question that wind is going to be a big participant in the power markets of the 21st century."
Throughout the 1990s, Europe has dominated the worldwide wind market, accounting for the lion's share of demand and wind-turbine exports. Germany has 6,113 megawatts worth of wind turbines, which meet 2.5 percent of the country's total electricity demand. Spain, the fastest-growing market for the past three years, now has almost as much wind capacity as the entire US.
Tiny Denmark dominates the industry. Danish companies supplied more than half the turbines now in use worldwide, making it one of the country's largest exports and employing more than 12,000 people here.
Wind turbines dot the Danish countryside like gigantic pinwheels, generating 13 percent of the country's electricity. The government plans to increase that figure to 50 percent by 2030.
For most of the previous century, Danes depended on imported coal and oil to heat and power homes, factories, and vehicles. The oil shocks of the early 1970s prompted a change of strategy for many oil-dependent nations. But while other countries invested in nuclear power and synthetic fuels, Denmark made substantial investments in developing wind power.
"I don't think we can save the world with wind energy," says economist Christian Kjaer of the Danish Wind Manufacturer's Association in Copenhagen. "But we can show the world that being environmentally conscious doesn't have to come at the expense of economic growth."
Danish farmers have long used windmills to power pumps. During the oil shocks, farm-machinery makers began building electricity-generating wind turbines - primitive compared with today's high-tech turbines.
The government, meanwhile, passed laws requiring utilities to buy the power at an attractive price. And thousands of rural residents joined wind-power cooperatives, buying turbines and leasing sites to build them, often on a member's land.
"People accepted wind turbines because they could become partial owners of them," says Preben Maegaard of the Folkecenter for Renewable Energy in Ydby, adding that 175,000 Danes own shares in wind coops.
Government policies are critical, industry experts say. Wind power has only succeeded where governments have provided tax or investment incentives or laws guaranteeing wind producers can sell electricity to the grid at an attractive price.
"Conventional energy sources have benefited from years and years of government support and private investment," says Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. "These laws are a way to allow renewables to get a leg up in the marketplace."
California's "Wind Rush" of the early 1980s - when more than 10,000 turbines were installed in windy mountain passes - lasted only as long as the federal and state wind-power tax credits. Ironically, many of the turbines were supplied by Danish companies, which jump-started the fledgling industry here.
Similarly, when Danish price supports lapsed in 1999, so did orders for new turbines in Denmark.
This year, the US market is expected to grow dramatically. While governor of Texas, President Bush signed electricity-restructuring legislation that requires 400 megawatts of new, renewable energy generation by 2003 and 2,000 megawatts by 2009, enough to cover 3 percent of the state's electricity needs.
Six other US states have adopted similar but less ambitious targets.
West Coast power shortages appear to be playing a role. On Feb. 23, the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest started accepting proposals for 1,000 megawatts of new wind farms to help meet the region's growing electricity demands.
In Europe, the emphasis is beginning to shift to offshore wind farms, which are more expensive to build but benefit from steadier winds.
Plus, they can be much larger because they aren't in anyone's backyard. Huge new offshore farms are planned off the coasts of Sweden, the Netherlands, and northwestern Denmark, some as big as 160 megawatts - about four times the size of Middelgrunden.
"We're the largest offshore wind park in the world," says engineer Hans Sorensen of the Middelgrunden Wind Farm Cooperative, who helped design the farm. "But we won't be No. 1 for long."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor