Answer to energy problem is blowing in the wind

FOUR groups of 12 hippies sitting in circles, some sheep grazing and a large concrete tower with some shaky scaffolding tenuously attached to it. Those were my first impressions of the community of Tvind that I visited in the summer of 1977.

Tvind, in Denmark’s west Jutland region, was an experiment in alternative schooling that included the concept of a travelling school, which would visit Third World countries and help to find ways to beat poverty. Although the Tvind schools can claim to have had an effect on pedagogy in Denmark — and they attracted a lot of controversy along the way — it is the large concrete tower that was under construction when I visited that has had the biggest effect. What the school was building was one of the country’s first big wind turbines.

The Tvind wind turbine started producing power in 1978. Thirty-six years on, Denmark’s wind industry employs 25,000 people in 350 companies with a turnover of more than R160bn.

As a visiting teenager, I thought the idea of the wind turbine was quite cool, but part of the attraction was that it was so alternative, so far removed from the mainstream. It was not possible to imagine back then that Denmark, just more than three decades later, would be providing almost 30% of its energy needs from wind power. The goal is to reach 50% by 2020.

One of the reasons that the forward-thinking teachers of Tvind started on the wind turbine was to prove to the world that nuclear power was not the only way forward. The antinuclear movement in Denmark was very strong in the 1970s. "Atomkraft? Nej Tak" (Nuclear? No Thanks) stickers were everywhere.

In 1985 the Danish parliament ruled out nuclear power stations being built on Danish soil. About 80% of the country’s wind turbines are owned by private shareholders or co-operatives. The island of Samsø has so much renewable energy it is now "carbon positive" and all of the inhabitants have a stake in the island’s wind turbines and solar panels.

SA’s journey into the realm of wind energy began quite recently, but there are some advantages to being a late entry into an industry. For one thing, the South African and Danish governments have a Renewable Energy Programme co-operation agreement, which was signed in 2013. This includes assistance in the creation of a comprehensive wind atlas that will map wind resources around the country.

Working with the scientists and engineers at Denmark’s Technical University (DTU), the same institution that worked on Tvind all those years ago, brings huge benefits to the South African partners such as the South African National Energy Development Institute, the co-ordinator of the atlas project, the South African Weather Services, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the University of Cape Town.

The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Programme (REIPPP), whereby private companies bid for the right to build projects, has so far favoured wind. By the end of the third round of bidding, 1,983MW had been allocated to onshore wind projects. The simple average cost of kilowatt hours was reduced by nearly 30% to 74c by the time the third round was completed, the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA) said.

The association further calculated that round three of the REIPPP would save SA more than R15bn over the next two decades, using the price of power to be generated by the Medupi coal-powered power station as a comparison.

The Danish ambassador to SA, René Dinesen, has described the programme as "very transparent and very effective, setting new international standards in the field".

SA’s wind sector is growing fast. Before the programme began, the country had a total of eight turbines. The first two rounds of the programme will see 500 constructed and by 2030 about 9,000MW of wind power will be available to Southern Africans.

A good transmission grid is vital if renewables are going to play a big role in power generation in the subcontinent. When Denmark has excess wind power, it is sent to Norway to pump water uphill into reservoirs for later use in hydroelectric power generation. Lisbeth Jespersen, the deputy head of the Global Green Growth Forum in the Danish foreign ministry, says getting turbines to Africa presents "no problem" but the key is "getting the energy out to the people".

A few kilometres north of Tvind, where the old wind turbine still produces energy after all these years, there is a test site for wind turbines that are quite staggeringly big. The national test centre for large wind turbines at Østerild is run by Denmark’s Technical University and hosts turbines being tested by Siemens, Vestas Wind Systems and EDF Enérgies Nouvelles, a French company using Alstom technology.

The latest 8MW turbine being tested by Vestas stands a total of 222m above ground, with a tower measuring 140m and rotor blades measuring 80m.

What a few teachers started in the 1970s has morphed into something really big. The huge moving towers looming over a hillside north of the Limfjord in northern Denmark are a sure sign that wind power is growing and it is coming to SA very quickly.

• Young was an exchange student in Denmark in the 1970s. He has recently visited the country on a study tour as a guest of the Danish foreign ministry, International Media Support and the State of Green.