Copenhagen to Be the World's First Carbon-Neutral Capital

Wind turbines
An off-shore wind farm stands in the water near the Danish island of Samso. Bob Strong/Reuters

While other countries debate whether to install wind turbines offshore or in remote areas, Denmark is building them right in its capital. Three windmills were recently inaugurated in a Copenhagen neighbourhood, and the city plans to add another 97.

"We've made a very ambitious commitment to make Copenhagen CO2-neutral by 2025," Frank Jensen, the mayor, says. "But going green isn't only a good thing. It's a must." The city's carbon-neutral plan, passed two years ago, will make Copenhagen the world's first zero-carbon capital.

With wind power making up 33% of ­Denmark's energy supply, the country already features plenty of wind turbines. Indeed, among the first sights greeting airborne visitors during the descent to Copenhagen's Kastrup airport is a string of sea-based wind towers. By 2020, the windswept country plans to get 50% of its energy from wind power.

Now turbines are migrating into the city and these ones will cost less than half the price of their sea-based siblings. "If there's space for wind turbines in cities, it should definitely be used," explains Brian Vad Mathiesen, professor of energy planning at Denmark's Aalborg University, where he directs the Sustainable Cities programme.

"Having the energy production closer makes it cheaper, and land-based turbines are the cheapest possible source of energy available today. Installing them also makes the residents more aware of their energy consumption."

Though considerably less charming than it was in its medieval incarnation, the humble windmill is enjoying a 21st-century renaissance. Last year, wind power capacity increased on every ­continent, according to industry association Global Wind Energy Council. In 2011 Port Rock, Missouri, with a population of 1,300 people, became the first American town to be powered by urban wind turbines, and other smaller urban installations have followed. Now, developers and home owners from Hamburg to New York have started adding rooftop wind turbines.

But no city comes close to Copenhagen's turbine ambitions and, in a recent poll, 89% of its residents supported the plan. "Windmills are a symbol of the new and clean Copenhagen," says resident Susanne Sayers. Fellow ­Copenhagen citizen Maria Andersen worries about the noise, explaining that she wouldn't want a wind turbine in her neighbourhood. While Copenhagen ­residents approve of the windmills, they're less willing to live close to one. The answer, the city has decided, is to sell turbine shares.

Each share represents 1,000 kW hours/year, with the profit tax-free. With a typical Copenhagen household consuming 3,500 kW hours/year, a family buying four shares effectively owns its own renewable energy supply. (Due to EU regulations, the turbines' output will be sold on the European market.) To date, 500 residents have bought 2,500 shares. Involving the local population was a smart move, says Vad Mathiesen: "There are a lot of things you can do close to people if it's not too big and if there's a model where residents feel involved and get to share in the profit. Knowing that you, or your neighbours, own a technology creates a very different atmosphere than if a multinational owned it."

Sustainable: tick. Accepted by the population: tick. Complementary to centuries-old city architecture? Hardly.

Granted, the three turbines don't exactly blight the 18th-century city centre, located as they are in a neighbourhood 3km away. According to the mayor's office, none of the remaining 97 turbines will rise in architecturally sensitive areas. But, warns Sascha Haselmayer, CEO of city innovation group Citymart, "with Denmark being a world-leading producer of windmills, there is a risk that the answer to every energy question is windmills".

Plenty of cities are even windier than Copenhagen, which also plans to increase the number of residents using bicycles as a means of further cutting CO2 emissions. Mayor Jensen reports that mayors around the world frequently inquire about Copenhagen's turbines, and he tells them that it's not just a solution for wealthy cities. The zero-carbon plan is "giving very good results in our budget", he reports. (Until 2025, the city will invest €3.6 billion in it.)

And like solar panels, urban wind towers may become inevitable. Several members of the C40 large-city network are now considering following Copenhagen-style plans.

"We've destroyed mountains and lakes in order to support our lifestyle," notes Irena Bauman, an architect and professor of sustainable urbanism at Sheffield University. "Wind turbines are a sign that we're learning to live with nature. I hope we'll have them all over the world."

Yes, she says, they may be aesthetically offensive to some: "But visually better alternatives will come. It's just that we don't have time to wait for them."