Thursday, May 6, 2010

President Obama's Energy Plan

Later this year, or latest in the first half of 2011, President Obama is expected to push for approval of his formal plan for our national energy plan in coordination with the Congress. It will be one of the most important pieces of his remaining legislative agenda. While it may seem rather strange and farfetched for most Americans, our polic├┐ makers can learn quite a bit from the experiences and directions being taken by the little country of Denmark.

My wife and I know quite a bit about Denmark from having lived here for four years in the early 1980's, regular visits since, frequent contacts with family and many close friends, reading Danish newspapers and independent research. Furthermore, my wife was born and raised here, and, in fact, we are currently on another visit to the capital, Copenhagen. It's true that there are a great many important differences between Denmark and the U. S., but we can still learn from their situation with energy policies.

Denmark has only 5.5 million people and it's one of the smallest country in size in northern Europe with its 16,630 square miles (half the size of Maine), excluding the large island of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The U. S. has about 308 million people and, of course, is one of the largest in size among the world's countries. Unlike the case of the U. S., though, Denmark has a fairly homogeneous population, the result being that the bulk of the population has similar views on many of the most important political policies and challenges facing the country. Despite very high personal income taxes, and unpleasant weather for much of the year, the Danes are reportedly the happiest people in the world, in part because of the security and high standards of living provided by the generous public services of their welfare state.

84% of their energy requirements come from domestic and imported fossil fuel resources, primarily oil and gas. The Danes produce roughly 64% of their fossil fuel energy from oil and gas fields in the adjacent North Sea, and the rest is imported, largely from Norway and the Middle East. They have little coal and no nuclear power plants, existing or planned. However, some coal is imported to generate electricity.

What have the Danes been doing in terms of energy policy? The Danish people and their federal government administrations have been highly environmentally conscious and to a significant extent are prepared to sacrifice comfort and conveniences to achieve greater revenue for public services, conservation and save money. A significant percentage of the population rides bikes to school or work, especially in urban areas. There are bike lanes all over. Those who drive to work, shop or for pleasure drive relatively small cars, because they are much less expensive and they have much better fuel mileage. One of the main reasons smaller cars are much less expensive is that there are substantial and highly progressive sales taxes on larger cars. Another reason is that gasoline costs 2.5 to 3.0 times as much as in the U. S. due primarily to high federal taxes on gasoline.

Minimum fuel mileage standards for cars and trucks are much stricter here than in the U. S. There are also enforced gas emission standards for all cars and requirements for servicing cars annually to check on operating efficiency and emissions. While I'm not completely certain of this, my clear impression is that Denmark also has stricter and more uniform building codes for residences, commercial and public buildings to, in part, ensure better energy efficiency.

As a result of energy policies implemented in the 1990's, Denmark currently gets fully 16% of their energy from renewable sources, as compared to just 7% in the U.S. One of the reasons for this achievement is the impressive performance of Denmark's Vestas Wind Systems, the world's largest manufacturer of windmills. Another important source of renewable energy is biomass to generate electricity and heat, supported by the country's sizeable agricultural industry.

Still another, though less important, source for renewable energy for heating homes and household water is the use of unique hoses filled with water around the home buried about a meter deep. The water is heated by solar energy stored in the ground and sucked up by special heating pumps. An electronic control panel adjacent to the pump is able to refill the hoses with water and adjust the volume and temperature of the water to meet the homeowner's requirements. Manufactured wood pellets are used in special furnaces to also heat homes. Danes are also experimenting with harvesting ocean algae to produce biodiesel for fueling trucks and buses instead of making diesel from petroleum. Finally, they import some electricity from neighboring Sweden which has been generated from hydroelectric plants, another renewable source. Only a very small part of their renewable energy is provided so far by solar power.

Like most European countries, Denmark has a quite effective, well promoted and developed public transportation system consisting of trains, buses and ferries, helping reduce energy use and emissions per capita, especially compared to most of the U. S. Clearly this is made easier by the small size of the country. We just took a train from Copenhagen to the small southern island of Lolland. It was interesting to see that on the train they had available plastic bags for trash promoting train use, indicating that on average a person driving a car emits 3-5 times as much carbon dioxide fumes into the atmosphere compared to that on a per capita basis of passengers taking a train. The bags also made reference to a website passengers could access to get more information on how individuals could contribute to lower harmful emissions.

Denmark has fairly ambitious objectives for the future when it comes to energy use and the related global warming status. By 2035 the Danes plan to get all their electricity and energy for heating from renewable sources - no coal, oil or gas for heating. By 2050 they plan to be completely independent of all fossil fuel sources. In other words, they want to get 100% of their energy from renewable sources, primarily wind power and biomass, thirdly solar. That's quite ambitious. In contrast, President Obama's goal is for 10% of our electricity to come from renewable sources by 2012 and 25% by 2025. Those goals don't deal with fossil fuel consumption for our transportation needs, although Obama wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

In summary, the U. S. policy makers can benefit by learning from Denmark's experiences, policies and directions in a number of areas, especially better efforts to develop more of a sensible national consensus on more ambitious energy policies, taxation approaches that discourage excessive consumption (such as higher sales tax on gasoline and gas guzzling cars), promotion and support of windmill and biomass energy technology, looking at expanded efficient public transport project opportunities, and promoting and implementing stricter energy efficient construction standards for existing and new residences, commercial and governmental buildings and facilities. Of course, it's not only Denmark we can learn from. It would also be desireable to see what we might learn from countries such as France when it comes to nuclear power and Germany on solar power. China is apparently currently investing huge amounts of money in renewable energy technologies in solar, wind and biomass. We can no doubt also learn from the Chinese. We need to get moving! A lot is at stake: well paying new jobs, energy independence, and national security and financial well-being.

No comments: