Danish Wind Pioneer Keeps Battling Climate Change – The New York Times
The contemporary wind power industry, which has spawned hundreds of thousands of spinning rotors generating electricity without putting greenhouse gases into the air, was to a great extent born in a notoriously windy region of Denmark called Jutland.
It was here almost 50 years ago, after the 1973 oil embargo cut energy supplies to much of the West, that inventors and machinists began comparing notes about ways to harness the wind that sweeps across this flat expanse separating the North Sea from the islands that form the rest of Denmark. And while countless people have played a role in refining the machines that stud coastlines, plains and mountain ridges, perhaps no one has had more influence than a Jutlander named Henrik Stiesdal.
As a young man of 21, he built a rudimentary machine to generate electricity for his parents’ farm. He was later co-designer of an innovative three-bladed turbine that set the stage for what has become a multibillion-dollar global industry. His inventions have led to about a thousand patents, and Mr. Stiesdal is widely seen as a pioneer in this very Danish field.
At age 66, he is not done. After decades working for what became some of the giant companies in wind energy, Mr. Stiesdal is putting his ideas into a start-up that bears his name, pursuing innovative ways to offer clean and affordable energy and tackle climate change.
At a factory in Give, a small town near the middle of Jutland, workers with welding tools are gearing up to produce massive tetrahedral structures, designed by Mr. Stiesdal, that will serve as bases for floating wind turbines. Made of tubes and resembling huge Lego toys, they will sit partly submerged, covering an area of roughly two American football fields.
Nearby, engineers are testing a machine that looks like a series of stacks of cafeteria trays. It is a new design for an electrolyzer — a device that takes water and, from it, derives hydrogen gas, which is drawing increasing attention as a replacement for fossil fuels.
Two hours north is another product under development: an industrial oven that bakes farm waste — like manure and straw — so that its carbon content can’t escape into the atmosphere and form carbon dioxide. It is carbon capture in action.
“You can see that it is not just talk” about climate change, Mr. Stiesdal said. “We have undertaken to do something.”
A tall, plain-spoken man not afraid to experiment with hydrogen, a potentially explosive gas, in his basement, Mr. Stiesdal is betting that his suite of technologies will contribute to a significant cut in greenhouse gas emissions. He also wants to ensure that Denmark and other Northern Europe countries stay in the forefront as investment in the transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources ramps up.
Mr. Stiesdal is taking the initiative when the renewable-energy industry in Northern Europe is in the doldrums. The region’s flagship wind turbine makers, including his former employer Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, have struggled because of rising costs and the slow approval of projects. The worry is that Chinese manufacturers, which long ago established dominance in making solar panels, will do the same in wind
Mr. Stiesdal has raised about $100 million for his company, Stiesdal, tapping a small group of investors. His family owns about 20 percent of the company, which has 125 employees. To keep costs down and to extend his reach, he plans to mostly license the new products, letting others build them.
Investors say they like Mr. Stiesdal’s combination of technological smarts and focus on lowering costs. “He also has a strong business understanding, meaning he can attract money like ours,” said Torben Moger Pedersen, chief executive of PensionDanmark, which manages retirement funds for 800,000 workers and is one of Stiesdal’s largest investors.
Mr. Stiesdal is trying again to find the creative spark that led Jutland and Denmark to play a world-leading role in reducing carbon emissions, mostly through wind, over the last half-century.
In Jutland, in the 1970s, many young Danes were experimenting with generating electricity from wind, partly as a countercultural kick spurred by the high energy costs of the 1973 oil embargo, but also as an alternative to nuclear power, which they scorned.
“We wanted to go to Jutland and make a greener world,” said Erik Grove-Nielsen, an early maker of wind turbine blades.
Mr. Stiesdal can date his aversion to fossil fuels to a bicycle trip to England when he was 19 and found himself riding for hours through a cloud of smoke spewing from a power plant.
“That gave me a strong feeling that this is not right,” he said.
In the late 1970s, he and a blacksmith, Karl Erik Jorgensen (who died in 1982), designed a wind turbine for a local company now called Vestas Wind Systems, at the time a maker of cranes. Their machine combined a number of ideas that became known as the “Danish concept.” It had three blades and “air brakes” to keep them from spinning out of control — a common hazard. They also engineered the device to keep facing directly into the wind, for maximum energy yield.
At the time, Vestas was experimenting with a less efficient two-bladed prototype. The three-bladed machine became a foundation for Vestas, which is now the world-leading manufacturer of turbines, with 14.5 billion euros (nearly $16 billion) in sales in 2022.
After dividing time between college and consulting for Vestas, Mr. Stiesdal joined a second Jutland company that would become a giant in the industry, now called Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy. He led technical breakthroughs, like one-piece casting of blades, that allowed wind turbines to evolve from relatively small structures for farms to towers with blades more than 300 feet long.
“He established that vision and dream, and then he turned it into reality,” said Steffen Poulsen, who heads design of new turbines at Siemens Gamesa.
Perhaps Mr. Stiesdal’s most lasting advance was leading the industry into the sea, through the construction of the world’s first offshore wind farm in 1991, a relatively modest project in shallow waters near Vindeby, Denmark. Vast arrays of seagoing turbines are now a common sight along many shores, and a major source of renewable electric power.
This innovation has helped nurture in Denmark two of the world’s largest renewable energy developers: the Vindeby wind farm’s owner, Orsted, and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, a private company with €19 billion under management.
“We have such a strong ecosystem that I think we will continue to be well positioned,” said Mads Nipper, Orsted’s chief executive.
Since retiring as chief technology officer of Siemens Gamesa, Mr. Stiesdal has looked for new ways to make a mark. One area: floating turbines, which can operate in deeper water than traditional wind farms. Although they open up far greater expanses of ocean to wind generation, floaters cost more to install, in part because they are not produced in assembly lines. Mr. Stiesdal aims to change that.
Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners has helped finance a prototype of a floating base designed by Mr. Stiesdal that would support a turbine, with an eye to using his design on future projects, including off Eureka in Northern California.
“Henrik is very focused on making sure the floaters can be produced in a smart way,” said Torsten Smed, a co-founder and senior partner at Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. The company is making these structures in Jutland for a wind farm planned off Scotland, using robots and other technology to remain competitive despite Denmark’s high labor costs.
Mr. Stiesdal, with researchers at the Technical University of Denmark, is also developing electrolyzers that are intended to cut the high cost of making so-called green hydrogen, which is free of emissions. Climate experts and industrialists say hydrogen is likely to be needed to power heavy industries, such as steel, and perhaps vehicles like airplanes and trucks.
While his electrolyzers are still in the shakedown stage, Mr. Stiesdal has a preliminary agreement with Reliance Industries, an energy giant based in India, to manufacture the devices.
He is also building an enlarged version of his carbon capture machine, SkyClean, which uses heat to turn agricultural waste into what looks like charcoal pellets that can permanently lock up carbon and thus, he says, prevent it from returning to the atmosphere.
Mr. Stiesdal’s company, like many start-ups, is losing money, he said, but he hopes to break even by next year. He thinks he has a good chance of success because the technologies he is nurturing are suited to a small country like Denmark, which has just under six million people.
The products are not especially high tech or labor intensive, he said, but depend on a hands-on approach and a well-educated work force produced by a widely accessible university system.
“In many ways,” he said, “they resemble what I did as a pioneer 45 years ago.”