"Impossible," "It cannot be done," "Fluctuating renewable energy amounts of that size compromises the security of supply."
These are the usual responses we hear from foreign guests visiting Energinet.dk. They doubt that it is possible to balance an electricity system with large amounts of energy that are dependent on the weather conditions. However, when we open the door to the control centre for the Danish transmission grid, they see colleagues neither in panic nor in fear of power cuts -- regardless of whether they visit on a day when the generation from Danish wind turbines correspond to 140% of the Danes' electricity consumption, or on a day without any wind.
The key to secure, stable and not least efficient transition to renewable energy is reliable electricity connection to neighbouring countries. Denmark is well-connected to the electricity grids in Norway, Sweden and Germany -- and we will build new connections to Germany, the Netherlands and perhaps a 600km connection across the North Sea to England. Strong infrastructure and a well-functioning electricity market allow producers and consumers to trade across borders and benefit from the countries' strong points. In Denmark, we do not have vast areas of mountains and rivers or live under a burning sun, and we do not have extensive areas of forests and loads of biomass. However, we have heaps of wind and long stretches of coastline. When the wind blows, the Danish wind-turbine owners can sell electricity to consumers in neighbouring countries, and when there is no wind, the Danes can purchase hydropower from the north, solar energy from the south or wind power from countries under a low-pressure front.
Denmark still has many power stations; and today they are very flexible and can contribute with electricity generation even for a few hours and with small amounts at a time, e.g., when the wind turbines are not spinning, supply is short and prices are high. Some power stations replace coal, oil and natural gas with biomass or green gases, and they continue to be an important part of the Danish electricity supply. However, there are fewer and fewer power stations, because a part of their business foundation disappears. This year, Denmark already has more than 250 hours where wind generation exceeds our total consumption, and in the course of a few years even more offshore wind farms will be added.
In 2050, the Danish government will make Denmark independent of fossil fuels. It is not unrealistic to generate electricity, heat and fuels for transport and industry out of renewable energy, but it is only possible to do it effectively and at a competitive price, if each country has a regional mindset.
It does not make any sense to invest in wind turbines, if they have to be stopped, when the wind blows, because of an insufficient electricity grid, and the electricity cannot get to the consumers who are willing to buy. It is expensive, if all regions have backup ready for worst-case scenarios, if the neighbouring country has plenty of electricity and would like to sell it.
The Nordic countries have led the way with a Nordic electricity market and strong infrastructure between the countries, and at the moment, the European electricity grid is expanding at full throttle.
Indeed, it is possible to balance the strong wind. That is what we show our guests in the control centre. We also tell them that Denmark no longer has enough central power stations to cover our "peak load" consumption. But we do not worry, and we are sticking to our objective of having one of Europe's highest levels of security of supply -- electricity 99.996% of the time.
Denmark's objective is that by 2020, wind energy must make up 50% of the electricity consumption -- today the number is more than 40%. After 2020, we must integrate even more, and that will require rethinking the electricity grid.
Our current system is based on fossil fuels, where generation every day is adapted to the expected consumption. However, in the future, electricity generation will be dependent on the weather, and it will not be consumption, but generation that will be the deciding factor. We need to make that transition without impairing operation of companies and comfort of the citizens. We will not be able to get citizens to get up in the middle of the night to press a button. The future calls for intelligent technology and flexibility. We need to heat up or cool down our houses when the wind blows. We need to charge our electric vehicles when there is solar energy and loads of cheap electricity.
As a central authority, we cannot invent the appliances and technologies of the future, but we can set the framework for well-functioning wholesale and retail markets, in order for skilled business people to develop heat pumps etc., flexible services and Smart Grid of the future.
Peter Andreasen, CEO of Energinet.dk, the Danish Transmission System Operator for electricity and gas. Energinet.dk maintains the short term and long term security of supply for electricity and gas. He is also President of the 41 companies in ENTSO-E (European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity)
This post is part of a "Nordic Solutions" series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on climate solutions from the five Nordic countries, and is part of our What's Working editorial initiative. To view the entire series, visit here.