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Nouvelles énergies pour la ville du futur

Eva Boxenbaum
Brice Laurent
Annalivia Lacoste

Partie II - Réorganiser la production et la distribution d’énergie ?

How wind power blew away the Danish centralized electricity system

Peter Karnøe

Note de l’éditeur

Peter Karnøe is professor at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he is associated with the Center for Design, Innovation and Sustainable Transition (C-DIST). He conducts research on the emergence of markets for wind turbines in Denmark. In this chapter, he explains how wind power came to hold a remarkably prominent place in Denmark.

Texte intégral

1How disruptive is wind power? How does it confront and alter existing energy arrangements? The questions are worthwhile asking in the light of the Danish experience, as the country represents a particularly exciting real- scale experiment in energy policy. In Denmark, wind power shifted from being a completely marginal source of energy in the late 1970s to becoming a dominant energy source that aims to provide 50% of total Danish electricity generation by 2020. Political and technical experimentation has made wind power central in today’s Danish energy strategy. But wind turbine technology meets an already existing technological environment, mostly characterized by a centralized system of electricity production and distribution. An important question is whether large-scale wind power can be handled technically, and be of any value, in this already-set energy arrangement? Wind power translates into a series of disruptions that require careful consideration.

2What energized the Danish development path of wind power trajectory from the 1970s is that political and technical advocacy and experimentation began to oppose the dominant “network of power” behind nuclear power. The concept of “network of power” refers to the mix of heterogeneous resources (combining political, technical, economic, scientific, media support etc.) that have been building up to support or oppose any technology. A “network of power” headed by physicist Niels Bohr, the Danish Industrial Association, the government, the public and media, had been preparing Denmark for nuclear power since 1957 when a nuclear power test facility was opened. Nuclear power was seen as the natural extension of the centralized electricity system. However, new concerned groups defined nuclear power in a different manner. Opposition to nuclear power was becoming a crucial element in the 1960s, but it intensified after the 1973 energy crisis. The network of power supporting nuclear power used the energy crisis to advocate nuclear power as the “natural response”. This effort spurred counter-action from the anti-nuclear groups, which joined forces with groups advocating for renewable energy. However, the self-confidence in the nuclear power network manifested strongly when the Director of the Electrical Utility Association in Denmark famously claimed at that time: “You may discuss as much as you like, but nuclear power you will get”.

  • 16 The technical experiments in the 1970s built upon a long Danish tradition for designing wind turbin (...)

3The first official Danish energy plan of 1976 focused on a shift from oil to coal dependency with an emphasis on nuclear power, energy efficiency and domestic energy sources. But the coalition of groups contesting the “established networks behind nuclear power” managed to penetrate the technical and political arrangement of the centralized electricity system. They did so in a mostly experimental manner. Politically prominent scientists from the Academy of Technical Sciences made calculation- based reports with scenarios of wind power and proposed experimental testing to part of the official energy policy. Anti-nuclear and pro-renewable energy groups formed a social movement that received public attention and some politicians began to listen and cast doubt on nuclear power. Technical experiments were happening in many places in Denmark, but a few stand out as particular.16 In 1975 the youth school community Tvind decided to build a two MW wind turbine; through combined efforts of students and teachers of aerodynamics, and professors at the Danish Technical University with electrical expertise, it was up and running in 1978. It became a landmark of optimism. However, people visiting the Tvind project also visited carpenter Christian Riisager who also started experiments in 1975, and who, by 1976, had designed a small 22 kW wind turbine, which he “hacked” on the electricity grid.

4Mainly concerned by the electricity bill after the energy crisis and motivated by a rather romanticized relation to harnessing energy from the wind, Riisager constructed his own wind turbine and connected it to the grid, without asking for permission. He looked at his meter, the story goes, and noticed it was running backwards. Meanwhile, nothing seemed to break down in the neighborhood. He then went to the local director of the electric utility to request an official authorization to connect his small wind turbine to the grid. This technical act had of course important political and institutional consequences. Riisager’s technical act of “hacking into the grid” happened in a regulatory “no-mans land” as the institutional regulatory framework for power generation did not include the option of grid-connected wind turbines but only of centralized power plants.

5After this initial experiment and with some political pressure from the government, the Danish Electrical Association of Utilities developed a set of guidelines that granted wind turbines the right to be connected to the grid. They also accepted to pay the independent power producers a modest price for the electricity. In 1979 a small political party in favor of renewable energy ‘forced’ the Danish minority government to introduce a highly controversial, but innovative market regulation in return for supporting their “employment-improvement” plan. A 30% investment subsidy was given to wind power investors if the wind turbine in question was approved by the new national test and research center for small-scale wind power.

Political disruptions

6In order to understand the penetration of the existing network of power, it is important to follow these sorts of historical details. My point is on the one hand that the Danish energetic technological trajectory is heavily path-dependent, and on the other hand that we need to appreciate the path creation of agencies that attempt to break dependencies and seemingly locked-in trajectories. Rather than being the outcome of grand political initiatives, wind power is the result of an accumulation of socio-technical experiments, struggles and mobilizations that began in the 1970s and evolved in the 1980s and the 1990s in response to new key concerns, new forms of coalition and new regulatory initiatives. The new network of power supporting wind power combined connections between technical experimenters (like Riisager or Tvind), concerned groups against nuclear power and pro-renewable energy, scientists-activists, and the media. This network was instrumental, in my view, for organizing political mobilization through technical and economic demonstrations of wind-power potentials in different scenarios and trajectories.

7The Tvind turbine became one of a kind, but the vision of big MW-size wind turbines was strong. By 1977 a national research program for large- scale and small-scale wind power research was initiated. About 90% of the economic resources went to the large-scale program, which was run by the electrical utilities, trying to control the development of wind power. During the 1980s, the technical experiments with large-scale wind turbines proved rather poor (definitely not a success), compared to the experimental results for small-scale wind turbines (à la Riisager). Utilities, on the other hand, did not fear wind turbines: they represented hardly anything, and nuclear power was not out of the game yet in the early 1980s. Nuclear energy was politically ruled out in 1985.

8By the early 1980s, the wind power network was still weak and unstable. The home market was very small and could not sustain industrial activity, but an unexpected export success (1982-1986) of small-scale Danish wind turbines to California led to some industrialization and became an important reference point for the wind power coalition. It grew stronger, technically, economically and politically, especially in the 1990s when CO2 concerns came to the forefront; Denmark formulated national energy plans in 1990 and in 1996 they were integrating CO2 emissions as a criterion for national energy policy. For example, decentralized power plants, which were fostered in part by the development of infrastructures for natural gas, constituted a rather hospitable technical environment for wind power, one that could be fuelled by biomass. The share of wind power in the Danish electricity system grew from 0% in 1980 to 2% in 1990, further increasing to 15% in 2000.

9These good days for wind power did not continue. A governmental shift in 2001 led to a strong wind power skepticism (and climate change skepticism), which characterized the political developments in the 2000s. For example, ambitious off-shore wind farm agreements reached in the 1990s met a dead-end. Further, in the face of a liberalization and so-called more “responsible economic policy”, the Economic Council concluded in a highly contested cost-benefit analysis of the Danish wind turbine trajectory that societal investments in wind power had not been economically responsible, given the low societal return on investments. Consequently a conclusion circulated that “wind power is too expensive”. But networks of power changed once more in favour of wind power as the climate change and wind turbine skeptic prime minister in a public speech in 2008 (before the COP 15 in Copenhagen) said: “I am sorry – I was wrong about climate change”. This acknowledgement stimulated an important new national compromise on wind power in the 2010s; Wind was granted a central position in the Danish energy strategy, and the new National Energy Act was approved in Parliament spring 2012. This policy stipulated that Denmark would seek to cover 50% of its energy needs through wind turbines by 2020.

Technical disruption of power regulation

10Since the 1970s, wind power penetration in Denmark shifted historically from “impossible innocence” to “disruption at work”. Why disruption? Is the becoming of a “network-of-wind-power” not just a matter of political will and of “liking or disliking wind power” (and accepting/not accepting climate change)? The higher-cost argument is well known: higher shares of wind power mean higher costs in the electricity system (well, dependent upon how many externalities are excluded from nuclear and fossil fuels).

11In fact, there is a good technical explanation for why larger shares of wind power increase the cost of running the electricity system. This explanation is linked to how we physically make electricity.

12Electricity is defined by the making and maintaining of a “load balance” of the movement of electrons, set at a specific frequency, 50 Hz, in real time. If the frequency-stability in the grid is violated, the result is a black-out. In real time, power generation needs to meet consumption on a fine-grained matching basis. Fluctuations in power generation are not by any means restricted to wind power, though wind power is admittedly greatly intermittent. Over decades, the System Operator of the centralized electricity system has developed operational routines in a learning process that allows optimization of production from power plants while maintaining automatic and manual reserves to be adjusted up or down within seconds and minutes. However, with larger share of wind power in a particular grid (+20% or so), the more the “load balancing capacity” will depend on a source that cannot be fine-tuned in the same way as adding a power plant: the System Operator cannot ask for more or less wind. And, consequently, more and more standby power will have to be available in that grid (coal, for example). Hence the disruption: the material violation of the electricity system occurs when wind power is massively plugged- in. Wind power disturbs the well-established standard or practice of load balancing in the centralized electricity system, and may result in massive amounts of “discharged electricity”– also called excess electricity.

13One conclusion is to say that a wind power based energy system is technically impossible. However, that is the standard talk framed on the basis of the technical standard of operating the centralized electricity system. But this conclusion does not take into account what I define as the material grounding of valuation. The idea is that the value of wind power depends on the valuation matrix that the observer or evaluator use. It turns out that the value of wind power, as that of any energy source, is grounded in the dominant technical arrangement of the responsive capacity of power plants and, in particular, in the existing grid infrastructure. This set-up is the technical transition challenge that precisely affects how valuation is done and how the value of wind power is considered.

14In the centralized electricity system, the “Grid 1.0” regime, load balancing happens in a “turning-up-and-down” logic where load follows demand, and consumption/consumers generally are passive in the load balancing process. Such a “Grid 1.0” cannot avoid being a hostile territory to wind power, which is costly and disruptive on that standard of generating and preserving load-balance. But I claim that the framing of the cost burden of the transition to wind power must recognize the material grounding of valuation.

15In Denmark a “Grid 2.0” regime is evolving to cope with the higher penetration of wind power. The System Operator and research groups are introducing a paradigm-shifting load balancing, a “volatility or fluctuation logic” based upon a Smart Energy System. This “volatility logic” is based on a power generation mix with 50% of wind power and an increase in the responsive and flexibility capacities by means of a smart technology mix of complementary generation, transformation of electricity to heat via heat pumps and semi-storage in higher temperature in district heating systems, new transmission lines (micro-grids), and the enhancing of consumer agency in load balancing. All these initiatives reduce discarded or excess electricity even if wind power share is increased to 50%.

16Such a transition towards a “volatility logic” requires a transformation of the material ground on which the valuation of energy technologies ought to be based. If large-scale wind power is valuated on the basis of the operational standards of the centralized electricity system, then it will become more costly because wind power enters materially hostile territory. If the share of wind power is added while gradually transforming the complementary technology mix that allows for a new model of load balancing, then the cost-picture is completely different. This transition is carried out by considering the value of wind power within a new technical environment that puts wind power at its center, and not in the margins. My point is that there are competing visions of, and struggles over, how to re-arrange the socio-technical components of the energy system means in order to avoid discharged electricity. It requires technical, political and regulatory re-building of a “network of power” that can afford a transition towards a “smart energy system” that is creating flexibility to meet “volatility”. This is, in my view, the direction that Denmark is demonstrating.

17With the political decision to increase from 25% to 50% wind power in Denmark by 2020, the Danish wind power path demonstrates a gradual “normalization” of “disruption”. The emerging new Danish energy system faces many uncertainties, but there is no panic in stating the next step towards 50% penetration. One important reason for the lack of panic (which is seen many other places) is that it has technically been demonstrated that the electricity system did not suffer from black-outs while wind power increased to 25%, and on this material basis there is trust and confidence enough to accept the political strategy.

Political commitment and valuation processes

18An important implication of the Danish experience is that policy challenges to the wind power commitment have strongly to do with the way we modify the conditions of valuation. Political commitment to favoring wind power has disruptive consequences on the material arrangement of the system, pricing methods and regulation of subsidies; these disruptive consequences have to be assumed at face value and organized in a responsible manner. However, regarding responsibility, there are also “limits to wind power” as concerned groups in Denmark protest against new wind power installations – just like they do for nuclear power facilities. The fact that wind power shifts from being marginal to becoming central in the energy system does not give it a right to “run over smaller actors”. There is also clear evidence showing that democratized co-ownership of large-scale on-shore and off- shore wind farms in Denmark has transformed the interests of concerned people.

19The new Smart Energy System in the Grid 2.0 arrangement relies greatly on a heavily active, responsive and reflexive consumer. It therefore opens the black box of the kind of citizen-consumer that needs to be configured, and, with this, the condition of energy as a public service in a common world. The disruptive experiment is therefore an anthropological experiment and a political one, and definitely a necessary one in my opinion. And the experiment ought to be an open one. The way of configuring an “active” consumer is manifold. You can rely on an exacerbation of the culture of consumer choice, exposing users to all sorts of signals, in particular price signals that demand decision-making. But you can also rely on automation protocols that shift decision-making to collectively assessed rules that are embedded in appliances and apparatuses. Path dependency is a key feature in any case.

20Does this mean that the value of wind power is politically malleable and socially constructed? Yes, if you take into account the material, technical aspects of that malleability and that construction. The key notion here is not path dependence per se, but path creation defined as the focus on the making of agencies that work hard to maintain status quo, or new agencies that imagine and realize new networks of power composed of techno- economic and socio-political arrangements. A path dependency thinking will always favor the existing as energy technologies and of the calculative methods and concepts we use in order to account for their value.

21The French nuclear trajectory emerged through path creation and is now strongly locked-in. The nuclear program, which also met opposition, represents a material grounding of valuation and the corresponding technical infrastructure, which posited nuclear power as the most rational and cost-efficient alternative. This orientation forged the path for nuclear energy in France. If the Danish utilities had agreed on a nuclear reactor type in the 1960s (which they could not), then they may very well have developed that path, too. I sincerely believe that path-creation is more appropriate than path dependence for explaining these struggles to foster new developments because it takes into account the agencies and networks of power involved in making and hindering at the same time. There is nothing structural that makes a path stronger, in principle, but a path surely becomes stronger and more irreversible as it is undertaken by various agencies associated with more or less institutionalized “networks- of-power”.

22This example of path creation teaches us about how technological paths are locked in and indicates keys for unlocking them. The Danish case also shows how society itself became re-organized and re-shaped by the wind power technological path. It shows that evolutions can be highly unpredictable when we operate in a highly experimental terrain.


16 The technical experiments in the 1970s built upon a long Danish tradition for designing wind turbines. This tradition began in the 1890s when physicist La Cour became principal of a Folk High School and began designing wind turbines to electrify the rural areas. He conducted advanced wind tunnel experiments and educated wind electricians. In the 1950s, engineer Johannes Juul, who took a course with La Cour in 1914, built upon the results of La Cour and others in his 200 kW Gedser-wind turbine from 1957. Most of the design elements of the Gedser-mill were in different ways used by Riisager and other wind turbine experimenters in the 1970s and evolved into the “Danish design”.

© Presses des Mines, 2013

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