Over a beer or two, Danes like to tell a story that goes like this: One night the energy ministers of the countries around the North Sea got together to divide up its oil and gas wealth. The Danish minister got very drunk, but the Norwegian managed to stay sober. As a result, Norway carved out a jagged shape that included Ekofisk, which has proved to be a major field, and Denmark was left with the dregs.
Regarded as a model of how to spend oil and gas wealth wisely, Norway has stashed away surplus revenues from exports, while hydropower caters for the bulk of its domestic electricity needs.
However, Denmark has also found its own path to energy pragmatism, supplementing its relatively few oilrigs with wind turbines and a deep commitment to energy saving.
As awareness has grown, cities like Copenhagen and some of the nation’s hundreds of islands are vying for the accolade of “zero carbon,” while Danes from across the social spectrum can tell you how much energy they use to the kilowatt.
Keeping up with the Joneses — or in this case Christensens — is all about using less fuel and having better solar panels.
“We get a bit competitive with our neighbors,” said Kalle Christensen, a computer engineer, who lives in a low-energy house in Stenlose South, just outside Copenhagen.
His is one of about 400 low-energy houses in a community expected to grow to at least 750. He said he was looking into buying solar panels that would allow him to sell more power back to the grid, although he already expects energy savings will more than make up the roughly 10,000 euro (US$13,300) difference in price between his low-energy home and a standard house.
Stenlose South has the highest concentration of such homes, but low-energy houses are a growing trend across Denmark, which enforces strict efficiency standards on new building.
Together with his wife, Anne Godiksen, a chemist, and two young children, Christensen uses around 5,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year compared with the 25,000kWh needed in their previous house.
Insulated walls, reinforced glass windows and technology tucked away in a control room ensure a constant temperature and re-use of heat from appliances. When it was minus-15°C outside last winter, it was a toasty 22°C inside.
Their neighbors are retired police inspector Ove Bendtsen and his wife, Hanne Beer.
The couple had considered moving to a retirement village but Beer, a former municipal worker, had heard about the low-energy housing project through her job.
Surrounded by young kilowatt-counters, they now have no anxiety about utilities bills and no need to buy water softener for the washing machine that runs on collected rainwater.
“There are only advantages,” Beer said.
For Denmark as a whole, the real energy sobering-up began in the 1970s when prices surged in the first oil crisis and the nation found itself almost 100 percent dependent on fossil fuel.
Now a world leader in wind power, Denmark gets a quarter of its electricity from wind and aims to increase that share to 50 percent by 2020.
As holder of the EU presidency until the end of next month, the Danes are championing energy saving and green growth in the region, but convincing others can be a problem.
In principle, all 27 EU nations have backed a target to cut energy use by 20 percent by 2020, but in practice they balk at any upfront investment, even for building measures that create jobs and ultimately cut bills.