The Danish wind energy pioneer is fighting climate change

The contemporary wind power industry, which has generated hundreds of thousands of spinning vanes to generate electricity without releasing greenhouse gases into the air, was largely born in a wind-famous region of Denmark called Jutland.

It was here nearly 50 years ago, after the 1973 oil embargo cut off energy supplies to much of the West, that inventors and machinists began comparing notes on ways to harness the winds that sweep this flat expanse that separates the North Sea from the islands that make up the North Sea. Rest of Denmark. And while countless people have played a part in improving the machines that stud coasts, plains and mountain ridges, perhaps no one has had a greater influence than a Jutlander named Henrik Stiesdal.

As a young man of 21, he built a primitive machine to generate electricity for his parents’ farm. He was later involved in designing an innovative three-bladed turbine that paved the way for what would become a multi-billion dollar global industry. His inventions have led to around a thousand patents, and Mr. Stiesdal is widely regarded as a pioneer in the Danish field.

At 66, he’s not done. After decades of working with what have become some wind power giants, Mr. Stiesdal is putting his ideas into a startup that bears his name, pursuing innovative ways to deliver clean, affordable energy and tackle climate change.

At a factory in Jive, a small town near the center of Jutland, workers with welding tools are preparing to produce huge tetrahedral structures, designed by Mr. Stizdal, which will serve as the bases for floating wind turbines. Made of tubes and resembling giant Lego toys, it will sit partially 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 of the electrolyzer – a device that takes water, and from it derives hydrogen gas, which is increasingly drawing attention as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Two hours north, another product is in development: an industrial oven that bakes farm waste—such as manure and straw—so that its carbon content cannot escape into the atmosphere and form carbon dioxide. It’s carbon capture in action.

“You can see it’s not just talking” about climate change, said Mr Stiesdal. “We vowed to do something.”

A tall, straight-talking man who isn’t afraid to experiment with hydrogen, an explosive gas, in his basement, Mr. Stiesdal is betting his suite of technologies will contribute to a dramatic cut in greenhouse gas emissions. He also wants to ensure that Denmark and other northern European countries stay ahead while investing more in the transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources.

Mr Stiesdal takes the lead when the renewable energy industry in Northern Europe is in the doldrums. The region’s leading wind turbine makers, including former employer Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, have struggled with high costs and slow project approvals. The concern is that Chinese manufacturers, who have long established their dominance in the solar panel industry, will do the same in the wind business.

Mr. Stiesdal has raised about $100 million for his company, Stiesdal, benefiting from a small group of investors. His family owns about 20 percent of the company, which employs 125 employees. To keep costs down and expand his reach, he mostly plans to license the new products, and let others build them.

Investors say they like Mr. Stiesdal’s blend of technology savvy and focus on cutting costs. “He also has a strong commercial understanding, which means he can attract funds like ours,” said Torben Moger Pedersen, chief executive of Pension Denmark, which manages pension funds for 800,000 workers and is one of the largest investors in Stijdal.

Mr Stiesdal is once again trying to find the creative spark that has led Jutland and Denmark to play a world-leading role in reducing carbon emissions, mostly through wind, over the past half century.

On Jutland, in the 1970s, many young Danes were experimenting with wind electricity generation, partly as a cultural headwind stimulated by the high energy costs of the 1973 oil embargo, but also as an alternative to nuclear power, which they disdained.

“We wanted to go to Jutland and make a greener world,” said Erik Grove-Nielsen, one of the first manufacturers of wind turbine blades.

Mr. Stiesdal can date his aversion to fossil fuels with a bicycle trip to England when he was 19 and found himself riding for hours through a cloud of smoke billowing from a power plant.

“It gave me a strong feeling that it wasn’t right,” he said.

In the late 1970s he and a blacksmith, Carl-Erik Jørgensen (who died in 1982), designed wind turbines for a local company now called Vestas Wind Systems, at the time a crane maker. Their instrument combined a number of ideas that became known as the “Danish Concept”. It had three blades and an “air brake” to keep it from spinning out of control – a common hazard. They also designed the device to remain facing directly into the wind, to maximize power.

At the time, Vestas was testing a less efficient two-bladed prototype. The three-blade machine became the basis for Vestas, which is now the world’s leading turbine manufacturer, with sales of €14.5 billion (nearly $16 billion) in 2022.

After splitting time between college and consulting for Vestas, Mr Stiesdal joined what has become an industry giant’s second Jutland company, now called Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy. He led technical breakthroughs, such as one-piece casting of blades, that allowed wind turbines to evolve from relatively small farm structures to towers with blades over 300 feet tall.

“He established that vision and dream, and then turned it into reality,” said Steffen Poulsen, Head of New Turbine Design at Siemens Gamesa.

Perhaps Mr. Stiesdal’s most lasting advance has been to lead the industry out to sea, with the construction of the world’s first offshore wind farm in 1991, a relatively modest project in shallow waters near Vindeby, Denmark. Large groups of offshore turbines are now a common sight along many beaches, and a major source of renewable electric power.

This innovation has helped nurture two of the world’s largest renewable energy developers in Denmark: Vindeby wind farm owner Orsted, and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, a €19 billion managed private company.

“We have such a strong ecosystem that I think we’ll continue to be in good shape,” said Mads Nipper, CEO of Orsted.

Since retiring as Chief Technology Officer at Siemens Gamesa, Mr. Stiesdal has looked for new ways to make a mark. One area: floating turbines, which can operate in deeper waters than traditional wind farms. Although they open up much larger areas of the ocean to wind generation, the cost of installing buoys is greater, in part because they are not produced on assembly lines. Mr. Stiesdal aims to change that.

Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners helped fund a prototype of a floating base designed by Mr. Stiesdal that would support the turbines, with an eye to using his design on future projects, including off Eureka in Northern California.

“Henrik is very focused on making sure buoys can be produced in an intelligent way,” said Torsten Smed, co-founder and senior partner at Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. The company is making these structures on Jutland for a planned wind farm off Scotland, using robotics 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 aim to bring down the high cost of making so-called green hydrogen, which is zero-emissions. Climate experts and industrialists say hydrogen is likely needed to power heavy industry, such as steel, and possibly vehicles such as planes and trucks.

While his electrolyzers are still in the shake-out phase, Mr. Stiesdal has made a preliminary agreement with Reliance Industries, an energy giant based in India, to manufacture the devices.

He’s also building an enlarged version of his carbon-capture machine, SkyClean, which uses heat to turn agricultural waste into something like charcoal pellets that can permanently trap carbon and thus, he says, prevent it from returning to the atmosphere.

Mr. Stiesdal’s company, like many startups, 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 sponsoring are suitable for a small country like Denmark, which has a population of less than six million.

He said the products are not particularly high-tech or labor-intensive, but are based on a hands-on approach and a well-educated workforce produced by a widely accessible university system.

He said, “It’s similar in many ways to what you did as pioneers 45 years ago.”

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