These are the biggest challenges for the government’s new green plan

Biogas will be an important part of the government’s strategy to make Denmark free of Russian gas. Here is Nature Energy Midtfyn. Illustration: Nature Energy

On Tuesday this week, the government, led by Mette Frederiksen, presented a new plan for Denmark to get a greener energy system and at the same time phase out Russian gas.

The key points are listed in the box to the right.

However, the plan contains a number of points that may seem doable to a political system, but which may not be resolved quite as easily in the actual processes that must be set in motion to achieve the goals.

We have therefore asked two key players in the process for their take on the biggest hurdles that must be overcome in order for the plan to succeed, both in regards to making residential heating independent of natural gas and increasing the production of green electricity.

First, we talk to Kamilla Thingvad, director responsible for energy production and development and trade in the new business organization Green Power Denmark, which is a merger of Dansk Energi, Wind Denmark, and Dansk Solkraft. As the first challenge, she emphasizes that if the plan is to be implemented, an extremely high pace of rollout must be maintained:

“We can see that the wind turbine expansion on land has stagnated here in recent years. There can be many reasons for this; local resistance and slow case processing in the municipalities. Therefore, the municipalities’ regulatory treatment must be approached markedly differently, and we propose to establish ‘green councils’ in the municipalities, where the citizens help to define local plans for development of solar and wind capacity and very concrete project proposals.”

“Today, only the opponents are heard. On top of that, climate conditions are not a priority factor in the municipalities’ planning—i.e. they are not a so-called ‘national interest’. This means that the municipalities are not obliged to make room for wind turbines and solar panels when they prepare local plans,” she says.

When it comes to the requirement that all households must have clear information on alternatives to oil and gas-fired boilers in 2022, Green Power Denmark is positive about it. But according to Kamilla Thingvad, there are also a number of challenges in the planning process. Therefore, municipal planning must be addressed:

“It’s great that we want to expand the district heating for Danish households. However, we often find that far too pessimistic data is included for alternatives such as heat pumps in the basis of assessment for local district heating projects. There are prices for the heat pumps themselves, efficiency, and costs for expanding the electricity grid which simply do not hold water. Therefore, we propose that the Danish Energy Agency should establish a kind of a ‘flying squad’ that can help the municipalities qualify the projects, so we get a more independent assessment of the technical and financial basis for the development,” she says.

Slow complaints system delays the transformation

A long complaints process and a divided complaints system are also one of the obstacles that Kamilla Thingvad points to as one of the most important challenges:

“As it is now, the complaints process is divided between the Planning Complaints Board and the Environment and Food Complaints Board. This makes the process slow and sometimes so lengthy that a new EIA must be performed. Therefore, it should be unified under one name. On top of that, we must thoroughly look through the planning basis itself so that we can better handle requirements for everything from protection of streams and watercourses to coastal protection, protected areas, and special rules for facilities near churches. Many of the current rules have been created in another time, where there may have only been a prospect of the construction of a few wind turbines. Today we are in a completely different situation with completely different needs,” Kamilla Thingvad says.

Several experts and organizations have pointed out that the expansion of the electricity grid could become a stumbling block. Kamilla Thingvad completely agrees with this. Again, it is the current rules for development, which have largely been created in a regime where the network expansion took place on the back of the need, that must be done away with:

“The strengthening of the electricity grid risks lagging behind the need at both the distribution and the transmission side if the regulation does not support a significant timely expansion. Our concern is that it will end up like this, even if a political decision has been taken to change it. The network expansion is simply too slow, and we believe that it must be expanded according to the plans that are now being presented and not only when there are concrete projects.”

Last but not least, Kamilla Thingvad is deeply concerned about access to skilled labour, which is absolutely necessary for the government’s plan to succeed. Today, there is a shortage of employees who can complete the projects, and this could be the fifth challenge:

“The competencies needed to implement all the new projects are not present today. There is a need for everything from high voltage engineers, network planners, and control room staff to electricians and unskilled workers. If we don’t start with education and retraining, it could end up being a serious stumbling block,” she says and also mentions the purchase of hardware, such as transformers, heat pumps, and other equipment, as something that is currently lacking.

We should simultaneously insulate houses

Marie Münster is a professor at DTU specializing in energy systems, and she also focuses on significant obstacles such as long delivery times for materials needed for the expansion of district heating, electricity grid, and heat pumps:

“When you look at the government’s desire to quadruple renewable energy production from wind turbines and solar panels on land, it’s also not possible to get around the fact that popular acceptance must keep up. Who is it exactly that will have a wind farm or a solar park in their view? For example, could it also mean that the consultation phase should be shortened?” she asks, calling the question of citizen acceptance “the elephant in the room”.

But she is also surprised that the government, in its eagerness to convert 400 000 gas-fired boilers to residential heating, completely forgets to look at energy savings:

“We know that about 50–60 000 gas-fired boilers can be converted to district heating per year, so why not use the waiting time for the rest to improve the homes? It could put a whole host of other craftsmen to work and such energy improvements will not go to waste. In the end, it may mean that a smaller heat pump or a lower district heating consumption is needed when the conversion is completed, and no one can be dissatisfied with that? So maybe it’s here that the government should intervene with help and advice for the homes where the need for energy renovation is greatest,” she says.

Marie Münster has also emphasized the government’s desire for far more biogas to replace natural gas. Specifically, the plan is to advance biogas production so that gas in Denmark is 100 percent green by 2030 at the latest:

“But in order to increase production, more biomass is needed, and the question is which biomass it is. For example, if it is maize, which is used today, it may not be such a good idea. We can also choose to extract the biogenic CO2 from the biogas production or flue gases, but then we may face a dilemma of whether CO2 should be put back into the ground to achieve a negative emission or whether it should be used for green fuels.”

“In general, there is a lack of discussion about how we use the biomass resources we have available,” Marie Münster says.

At the same time, she emphasizes that many biogas plants can already increase their capacity today, but this means that more trucks must be driven to the plants and more ‘valuable’ biomass, such as maize, must be used to increase production.

In principle, Marie Münster believes that it is possible to convert the 400 000 gas-fired boilers into an alternative, whether it be district heating or heat pumps, by 2028. However, she is more sceptical about whether it is possible to expand the electricity grid in step with the need when it comes to rapid expansion along with renewable energy capacity in the short term.