As the country’s reliance on wind has grown, the Danish city of Aarhus and surrounding towns have become a renewable energy melting pot.
With its lively waterfront, tree-lined canal and red-brick buildings topped by steep gunmetal-gray roofs, Aarhus looks like just another coastal city in Northern Europe. But get closer and what comes into focus is a place central to the continent’s remarkable shift to renewable energy.
Down by the docks, at a facility nestled among huge oil tanks that reek of the past, the world’s biggest wind-turbine maker tests parts for these gargantuan machines of the future. Meanwhile, in offices all across Denmark’s second-largest city, fast-growing cadres of energy traders are making big bucks from the volatility that wind and solar power generate.
This didn’t happen by accident. What would ultimately become Vestas Wind Systems started as a blacksmith shop in 1898 on the western edge of Jutland, a windswept peninsula sandwiched between the North Sea and southern Sweden. Until the 1970s the company’s products ranged from milk coolers to steel window frames. As Denmark, a net energy importer, was stung by that decade’s oil crises, Vestas turned its hand to alternative energy. Early turbine prototypes – including one that looked like a giant egg whisk – were developed in secret. After several decades building up its wind-turbine business, the company moved its headquarters to Aarhus, Jutland’s biggest city.
Today wind regularly meets more than half of Denmark’s demand for power. As the country’s reliance on wind has grown, Aarhus and surrounding towns have become a renewable energy melting pot – of manufacturers and suppliers, traders and analysts, specialist lawyers and academics. China’s largest maker of wind turbines, Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology, has a research office here. In 2016 energy and environmental companies accounted for the port city’s second-biggest export industry (after food), according to the latest available data from the municipality. “Renewable energy plays a huge role in the city,” says Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard. “It’s not just Vestas.”
Traders sometimes liken Aarhus to the Swiss commodities hubs in Geneva or Zug. Judging from the low turnover rates at local trading firms, the city (population 345,000) offers enough to keep people from shoving off to Copenhagen or London or beyond. Besides the buzz of the work, the attractions range from the cosmopolitan ambiance provided by Aarhus University to four restaurants with Michelin stars. “Aarhus more than lives up to big brother Copenhagen’s reputation as a foodie destination,” says Soren Jessen, a Danish former banker who owns restaurants in London.
Mr Bundsgaard, 43, has been mayor since 2011. Most mornings, typifying the municipality’s mission to become carbon neutral by 2030, he cycles to work at city hall. Aarhus, where CO2 emissions have been cut in half over the past decade, has built a 110-kilometre electric tram network and will introduce electric buses this year. Wastewater treatment plants are ordinarily very energy-intensive; Aarhus’s produces 40 per cent more power than it consumes.
Perhaps the most striking monument to Aarhus’ place in the world of renewable energy is a biomass plant that opened in 2017. Atop a hill at Lisbjerg, on the edge of the city, three enormous 45-metre-high glass boxes soar above a landscape of farms and woodland. More than 60 trucks a day deliver agricultural straw to the plant when it’s running at full capacity. Next door, in another box, there’s an older waste facility. Here, 150 trucks a day dump rubbish that’s incinerated at 1,000°C. Both plants produce electricity and pump hot water into the Aarhus district’s heating system. “We’re almost free from coal now,” Mr Bundsgaard says.