Embracing the Wind: Denmark's Recipe for a Model Democracy


Manfred Ertel and Gerald Traufetter


By Manfred Ertel and Gerald Traufetter, August 24, 2012


Hailed as a "miracle of modern politics," Denmark consistently earns top marks for its efficient governance, innovation and transparency. Nowhere is this more apparent than with its successful embrace of wind power, making it a role model for the world.


Western democracies consider themselves to be efficient, farsighted and just -- in other words, prime examples of "good governance." But in recent years, the euro and debt crises, along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , have shattered faith in the reliability of Western institutions. Disconcerted Europeans are casting a worried eye at newly industrialized nations like China and Brazil . Can the West learn something from countries that for so long sought its advice? This is part III in a four-part series looking at how the world is governed today. For part I, on Brazil , click here. For part II, on the United States , click here. Check back for part IV, on China , next week.


The blades of the wind turbine are made of plain wood painted red, and they measure exactly 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) long. Their curved edges are only roughly sanded. Nothing seems to suggest that this unremarkable-looking device heralded the rise of a global corporation and the restructuring of an entire country.


"At the time, I found the thing in a dusty corner of the barn," says Henrik Stiesdal. "I still clearly recall how I held it in the wind for the first time."

His blue eyes gleam as if he were reliving the experience from 35 years ago, saying: "I suddenly felt this power and thought: That's just the ticket!"


Stiesdal jumps up from his chair, which he had been casually rocking on only a moment ago. He wants to leave his office on the first floor and show his visitors what has evolved from this red piece of wood. The 55-year-old technical director at Siemens Wind Power rushes toward a large production hall with its walls of black granite sparkling in the sun.


Once inside, everyone takes in the view of a vast production line, similar to the ones used in automotive plants. Here, though, workers are assembling white quadrants of steel that are as large as a small single-family dwelling. Stiesdal is still holding his red rotor blade, but it looks like a toy in comparison to the 400-metric-ton (880,000-pound) wind turbine behemoths moved here on air cushions. This is precisely the effect that Stiesdal is aiming for with his visitors: "They need to grasp the rapid development that the wind industry has experienced over the past 30 years," he says.


A Wind Pioneer


Stiesdal is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the wind-power-generating industry, in Denmark and around the world. He was just about to graduate from high school when his father's farm was in roughly the same predicament as the entire country: It was the 1973 oil crisis and Arab oil-producing countries had slashed production. The winter was cold, and the government had called on its citizens to only heat one room in their homes.


It was precisely at this critical point in their history that the Danes proved that they have a particularly well-organized state, one that can react and adapt. These years marked the beginning of Denmark's reputation as a model of modern governance, as a paragon of innovation and transparency. And it provided proof that a democratic government can foster enthusiasm among its citizens.


Stiesdal was a key figure in this development. Together with a talented handyman from his hometown in Jutland, he built the first economically feasible prototype of a wind turbine. They received a loan of 50,000 kroner -- the equivalent of roughly €23,000 ($29,000) today -- from the state, which was desperately looking for something to replace the missing shipments of crude oil. In 1979, they sold the license for the prototype to a company called Vestas. "At the time, the company was still manufacturing tractors and cranes," he says.


Today, Vestas is the world's largest producer of wind turbines. Stiesdal, on the other hand, continues to develop new models that generate even more power, though now he is working for the German engineering giant Siemens, which purchased a Vestas competitor in the small Jutland town of Brande in 2004. Stiesdal's latest breakthrough is a wind generator without a gearbox. "With an output of 6 megawatts, this machine is 150 metric tons lighter and requires less maintenance," he says without a hint of humility.


He explains that these technological marvels are nearly 200 meters high and still have a great deal of development potential. One thought makes him particularly proud: "We've produced turbines in this plant with a total output of 15,000 megawatts," he says, adding that they generate 35 billion kWh a year. "Do you know how much energy that is?" he asks. Without waiting for an answer, he says: "Denmark's entire electric power consumption!"


Stiesdal says that these wind turbines have been shipped to the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and the entire world. "That's this small country's contribution to the battle against climate change," he adds.


Leading the Way to Renewable Energy


Indeed, the statistics are impressive. It's estimated that some 50,000 wind turbines have been exported from this mini-kingdom between the North and Baltic seas, nearly 50 percent of the wind-powered generators worldwide. But sales are declining now that large industrialized nations, such as India, China and the US, are emulating the Danes' success.


In addition to the graceful, towering turbines made of fiberglass and steel, however, Denmark has also given the world a shining example of sustainability: The parliamentary monarchy is widely seen as a laboratory and model for how an entire country can make the transition away from coal, oil and gas and toward energy generated from renewable resources.


Today, already 24 percent of the electricity consumed in Denmark comes from wind power -- a world record. There are plans to increase this to 50 percent by 2020, and the country intends to become entirely independent of fossil fuels by 2050.

It's up to people like Stiesdal to meet the technical part of this challenge, to create increasingly efficient turbines that are quieter and more robust -- and better adapted to operate on the high seas. In the 1990s, for instance, he designed the turbines for the first offshore wind farm at his plant in Brande.


But there's also a fundamental dimension to Denmark's energy transition: How is it possible to whisk such an initiative through parliament, the courts and company boardrooms in a way that makes the population see its advantages rather than growing weary of it? How do you plant a major technological innovation in people's minds, and how do you distribute it to the electrical outlets of an entire country?


It's the challenge of an entire generation and a race against time: Whoever first manages to tame the wind is guaranteed prosperity and power. "Why do you think the Chinese president recently visited Denmark?" Stiesdal asks.


Indeed, even without its wind-power success story, political scientists have long viewed Denmark as a model state. Perhaps the most striking expression of this was coined by Francis Fukuyama in his most recent work "The Origins of Political Order," when he talked about the idea of "getting to Denmark." For the Stanford professor, who became world-famous with his 1992 proclamation of the "end of history," the Scandinavian country is "a mythical place" known for its outstanding political and economic institutions. "It is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and has extremely low levels of political corruption," he writes.


Fukuyama presents Denmark as a "miracle of modern politics," as a point of orientation for all failed and faltering states in this world. Likewise, he postulates a kind of tripartite recipe for successful governance. This requires an effective administration, a transparent justice system and a government that is accountable to its citizens at all times.


Of course there is always something or other rotten in the state of Denmark, making this famous line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" an oft-cited metaphor in political commentaries on this nation of 5.6 million people. And, of course, even Denmark cannot isolate itself from the forces that undermine parliamentary democracies elsewhere. But, in international rankings, the Danes regularly take top positions not only in terms of quality of life, competitiveness, combating corruption and the satisfaction of its citizens, but also with regard to the quality of its politicians.


Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung, for instance, recently came to the following conclusion in its latest comparison of sustainable politics in over 100 countries: "The general level of public trust in government and public administration is high." When it came to political management ("very convincing"), it rated Denmark in third place, eight places ahead of Germany and 22 ahead of France. It said that governmental action in Copenhagen is extraordinarily "credible and transparent."


A Winning Mindset


Wind power provides an ideal example of what this triad of productive administration, effective justice and accountable politicians can accomplish in Denmark.


Right at the entrance to Copenhagen's harbor stands the first, widely visible symbol of the success of Denmark's wind democracy. Only just over 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the shoreline, directly in front of the local beach used by the capital city's residents, stand 20 wind turbines in a crescent formation, like pearls on a necklace in the strait that separates Denmark and Sweden. "Aside from a few old women, it doesn't bother anyone," says Erik Christiansen, 56, who heads the cooperative association that operates the wind farm.


Before the wind turbines -- each over 100 meters high and generating two megawatts of power -- were connected to the electrical grid in early 2001, only four objections were lodged against this major project. By German standards, this would be unthinkable. One resident complained at the time that the rotors stood so close to the shoreline that she would have to see the turbines every day. "Of course, that's also the idea," was the simple response. "We wanted to make alternative energy visible," Christiansen says.


He has been running the cooperative with a staff of seven since it was founded in 1997. Today, 8,642 members own 50 percent of the shares, while the remainder is held by the public utility giant Dong.


Christiansen is a mild-mannered legal expert who has a green and eco-friendly mind-set, but he isn't a zealous crusader. Indeed, this man -- with his nondescript mustache and square wire-rim glasses -- embodies a character trait that many political scientists say is responsible for the success of Danish consensual politics: "Ideological immunity," is the term used by Berlin-based Scandinavia expert Bernd Henningsen in his analysis of Germany's northern neighbors.


Instead of revolutionary upheaval, continuity has always been seen as a guarantee of success in Denmark. The great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard recommended that political thinking and action must be based on a tangible reality.


In terms of wind power, the tangible reality is the desire to never again be forced into a dependency on fossil fuels.


A 'People's Movement'


For a long time, the wind park just outside Copenhagen was the largest in the world. Christiansen and his colleagues have rehearsed how to gain acceptance for such a major project -- and how to raise money. The association had to accumulate some 180 million kroner -- the equivalent of €24 million -- to realize the project. It took them only one year to amass the funds, and the shareholders' optimism appeared boundless. There were no laws or guidelines to serve as a basis for the construction. Instead, rules and parameters were tested and established as the work progressed.


Although the turbines are spinning at a prime location, only a handful of objections were raised. A few fishermen protested, but they're not allowed to drop their nets there anyway due to water-pollution regulations. A few sailors complained about the feared operational noise of the propellers, whose sound would carry over the water for kilometers. And concerned nature lovers warned that thousands of birds would die.


These are all common objections in other countries. But, in Denmark, wind power has become a "people's movement," Stiesdal says.


Despite all the prejudices of the Protestant rural population, the tinkerers and inventors -- including many hippies and nonconformists -- were able to convince the farmers and small-town residents to make their fields available and give them money. "You don't fight against something that benefits you personally," Stiesdal says.

As an executive, Stiesdal knows that big-city dentists are the ones bankrolling wind turbines in other countries. But that isn't the case in Denmark. The original proponents of wind power may no longer be able to raise the large amounts of capital required, and the large wind farms receive their money from international investment funds, but local communities are also investing. They contribute 20 percent of the investments made, as prescribed by law. Offshore wind farms, such as Denmark's largest off the island of Anholt in waterway between Denmark and Sweden, receive their money from retirement funds. "It's a great feeling to see the turbines spinning and know that they're securing my pension," Stiesdal says.


Hardly a day goes by at the Siemens facility in Brande without there being yet another delegation of parliamentarians, civil servants or concerned citizens from around the globe wandering through its production halls. "The last group was from South Africa," Stiesdal says.


When the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, approved the energy transition last year, a phone rang shortly thereafter in Copenhagen. It belongs to Hanne Windemuller, a petite, determined woman with reddish-brown hair. A colleague from the Environment Ministry in Berlin was on the line because she knew that Windemuller has plenty to say about what a state has to do if it wants to revamp one of its key sectors from the ground up.


As a legal expert at the Danish Energy Agency, Windemuller has occupied a key position in her country's ambitious climate plans. The parliament approved the project in the spring. This gave an urgently needed political victory to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister who has been under constant pressure to disprove charges that she is too young and inexperienced since assuming office late last year. And it created a great deal of work for Windemuller.

Windemuller is on her way to the next meeting, so she grabs a quick bite to eat and rushes back across the corridor with her food tray. The building features the kind of Scandinavian design based on concrete, steel and wood that is so readily copied by the educated elite in the rest of the world. "The consensus in parliament was overwhelming," she says. In fact, this consensus has existed with few exceptions since the days of the first attempts by the wind farmers of Jutland.


What may sound like uniformity and a lack of change to passionate ideologists has, in effect, enormous advantages: "Such a consensus provides support for major projects that transcend legislative periods," Windemuller says. Her political superior, Danish Energy Minister Martin Lidegaard, knows that he can rely on the support of his fellow Danes. "It looks like Danes have an affinity for the wind," he says.


There has been much speculation about the Scandinavians' relentless will to reach consensus. Does it find its roots in a form of Protestantism based on reforms rather than revolutions? Already at an early stage, the black-clad ministers set out to teach people throughout the country to read and write. They were at least expected to understand the catechism. This created an early maturity of the masses that was unparalleled in Europe, as political scientist Fukuyama claims in his book.


There were probably also pragmatic reasons, though, for the search for consensual solutions in a country as small as Denmark. In any case, consensus could be a lesson that was learned from many lost wars, above all the Second Schleswig War in 1864, which entailed the loss of the country's southern territories to Germany. "Winning on the interior what has been lost on the exterior" was a popular slogan of the day, and it is still readily used today. In other words, it means that a small country can only survive through cohesiveness rather than through ideological conflicts.


Transparency and Trust


The Danish system of consensus is based on its citizens' deep-seated trust in the state and politics. In fact, this is much greater in Denmark than in most other Western democracies. And civil servants like Windemuller ensure that this remains the case.


Her team is responsible for setting up offshore wind parks. It coordinates all the relevant ministries, commissions the necessary environmental studies, acquires the necessary permits and introduces guidelines -- all under one roof. "We calculated how much wind power we need to meet our energy goals," Windemuller says. Then, she continues, they asked about possible locations in local communities, picked out the best ones and conducted all the necessary preliminary studies.


"That's the kind of thing we do for the investors," says Windemuller, who finds it unfathomable that a wind-power company would first have to run a gauntlet through ministries and government agencies. The areas that Windemuller's team have studied and selected are then auctioned off to a company via a tendering process. "The contract is awarded to the company offering the lowest price per kilowatt," she says.


This process has advantages for everyone concerned: The companies know exactly what to expect. "They can rest assured that they won't have to contend with any complaints or new regulations from the administration," says Windemuller, a former oil-industry executive herself. The state also benefits from the efficiency of this central planning: It can be sure that established targets are also respected.


Indeed, mismanaged energy policies like the ones in Germany, where billions of euros have been invested in inefficient photovoltaics at the cost of consumers, would be virtually unthinkable in Denmark.


Thanks to this transparent procedure, citizens can hope that the project will be a success -- and they generally thank the authorities with their loyalty. However, since trust also entails making sure that all parties play with an open hand, companies have to show that they are respecting the guidelines stipulated in the bidding process.


In fact, even Windemuller's agency has to ensure the highest degree of transparency. "Corruption," says Windemuller, as she pushes her empty tray aside as if it held an envelope stuffed with money, "is practically impossible in this country." There is hardly any detail of the process, she says, that can be kept hidden from public view.


Transparency is a two-way street in Denmark: Citizens and journalists can view the inner workings of everything that the state is doing. In return, citizens have to allow the state a more unrestricted view of their private sphere than is the case elsewhere.


Increasing Support, Reducing Litigation


Since this principle of openness is a key characteristic of Scandinavia, it's not particularly surprising that Denmark consistently ranks at the top or in second place in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, meaning that it is perceived as being one of the least corrupt of all countries surveyed by the organization. This may have something to do with the puritanical Protestantism in these countries. For centuries, devoutly religious community leaders have relentlessly ensured that all rules have been strictly followed. But political scientists also view this transparency as one of the secrets of Scandinavia's success.


Corruption is like a corrosive liquid that flows through a state's machinery and causes everything to rust until it finally grinds to a halt. If people believe their political leaders engage in nepotism, for example, their desire to play along wanes.


Windemuller knows that if a government announces a major new project, and its citizens' knee-jerk reaction is to immediately file lawsuits and organize demonstrations, then something is indeed rotten in such a state. What's more, she can't fully comprehend why the resistance to offshore wind farms in Germany is so great that they have to be built beyond the horizon.


She says it's certainly not because Danes are particularly environmentally conscious. Wind parks, particularly on land, also have their opponents in Denmark. But then the government goes about making the wind turbines more appealing to locals. The agency offers incentives: A portion of the profits from the wind energy generated flows back into the communities, where it's used for environmental projects. "That's a nice additional source of income for them," Windemuller says.


If the construction of a wind turbine threatens to erode the value of nearby real estate, the owners receive compensation. Furthermore, the state acts as a guarantor should a local operator association go bankrupt. "This takes away the locals' anxieties about joining forces and investing in wind power."

An added benefit is that there are not as many wind-power-related lawsuits in Denmark as there are in Germany. Instead, there are two boards to hear citizens' objections, each of which is presided over by a judge. "Anyone who has objections can voice them there," Windemuller says. It takes between six months and a year for the arbiter to reach a decision, and there are no provisions for appeal. "As far as I know, a lawsuit has never been brought before a normal court," says Windemuller, as she enters the conference room right on time for her next meeting.


One of the items on the meeting's agenda is an office that the agency is currently opening in Beijing. China, with its population of over a billion, is looking for advice, Windemuller says. "Imagine that," she adds, "from a country as small as Denmark!"


Read SPIEGEL's introduction to this series on good governance here, the first installment (on Brazil ) here and the second installment (on the US ) here. Check back for the final installment, on China , in the coming weeks.


Translated from the German by Paul Cohen