Collaboration in Denmark: Working Towards Common Goals

Government collaboration

In the United States, the political parties typically attempt to distinguish themselves from one another by offering strongly opposing views.  Instead of trying to find areas of agreement, they find areas of disagreement to brand themselves or their political party.  One thing the Danish are doing well is collaborating for the common good of the people and the planet.  Regardless of the opposing views of the political parties, seven out of 8 parties have signed onto the Danish Energy Agreement in a collaborative attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 34% by 2020.  After many of our meetings in Denmark, it became clear to me that collaboration was one of the major keys to the country’s success finding solutions for sustainable energy.

I realized that government collaboration amongst parties and collaboration between the government and the private sector is not only good practice, but will become necessary in order for our country to move forward and become more sustainable.  Because all of the major Danish political parties have agreed to this common goal, the country is ensured that no matter which party is elected, they will continue to work towards it.

In our country, we continue to see that years of progress can be erased when an opposing political party gets voted in.  Although I think a collaborative agreement towards sustainability and energy independence is a great goal to work towards, I think that progress is hindered by our current political system.  The fact that we have only two major political parties with opposing views of how to attain energy independence along with significant lobbying of political figures by energy companies, are examples of significant barriers to effective collaboration.  We need our government (and our citizens) to come together and agree to invest in reducing our carbon footprint as a nation, and then we can decide what steps we will take to get there.

Public-private collaboration

One of the reasons the Danes are able to have such ambitious goals about reducing their carbon footprint is that they have chosen to integrate knowledge between stakeholders.  In order to find effective ways to reduce their dependence on non-renewable energy sources, government entities collaborate with universities and private business to share ideas and identify the most efficient road.

The Danish Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells is a great example of this partnership in action.  This network of private and public stakeholders was created to develop and commercialize hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and has been very successful at helping Denmark move to the forefront of developing these new technologies.  Through a shared understanding and common goals, the organization functions using a flat organizational structure where competitors share ideas and exchange information freely in order to deliver the most value to the end user.  This open collaboration style has also allowed Denmark to become the number one exporter of energy technologies in the world.

Although this type of collaboration can lend itself to great strides in the development of new technology, it can also result in a much slower process because there are so many stakeholders involved.  Decision making can also prove to be more difficult in such a large partnership.  I’m not suggesting that large-scale collaborations are always effective for every project or investment, but in the case of developing new technology, it can be very helpful to have input and involvement from many different stakeholders.

As we listened to the representative from the Danish Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells talk about their partnership consisting of manufacturers, network organizations, Danish universities and public authorities, I wondered why we don’t collaborate in similar ways here in America.  This collaboration struck me as a great way to promote infrastructure within the country through the use of public and private resources, while at the same time allowing students to get hands-on experience in a growing field that will have a high demand for a skilled workforce.  I soon realized I was wrong when I picked up the newspaper a few days ago and I read a story about a new wind turbine being launched into the Penobscot River in Maine.  As I read the article, I was surprised to learn that this is already happening in America, right in our backyard, it just isn’t highly publicized (or I’m more enlightened since our trip to Denmark!).  A group of universities, non-profits, utilities, and private companies have created the DeepCwind Consortium, backed by government funding, in an effort to establish Maine as a leader in deepwater offshore wind technology.  In hopes of creating a full-size wind park off the coast of Maine, this group created North America’s first floating offshore wind turbine.

The structure passes the float test as it sits on the water according to plan as the DeepCwind Consortium launches the VolturnUS wind turbine Friday.

(photo from Portland Press Herald – turbine is lowered into water on May 30, 2013)

The turbine (a prototype) was lowered into the water three days ago and will eventually be connected into Maine’s electricity grid with an undersea cable.  At 1/8th the size of a normal turbine, the prototype is only expected to generate enough electricity to power four Maine homes.  The group is hoping that once the technology is tested in the ocean, they will have enough information and more government funding (a $96 million investment) to build two full-size turbines that could power up to 6,000 homes.

Habib Daghjer, the UMaine Composites Center director, introduces the team of students and Cianbro employees that worked together as the DeepCwind Consortium launches the VolturnUS wind turbine model Friday.

(photo from Portland Press Herald – collaboration at work)

With all of the negative press about the government’s failed investment in Solyndra, I was excited to learn about the grants that are being provided to invest in wind-energy.  I believe that investing in new technology is necessary to move our country towards sustainability and could also provide a great boost to our state’s economy.  In order to mitigate the risks associated with the development of new technologies, it is often essential for companies to receive government funding so that they can be viable during the research and development stages.  It can often take a long time for private companies to break-even or begin to earn a profit, so early investors need an incentive to enter the field, often through government-backed funding or government-guaranteed contracts.

The progression of this particular investment of the grant funds seems logical (and safe) as well.  The Consortium was one of five awardees originally awarded a $4 million grant to engineer and design prototypes.  The Department of Energy will then select three of the five projects for follow-up phases that focus on achieving commercial operations by 2017.  The Consortium is hoping to receive around $50 million of government funding (of the necessary $96 million) needed to fund the next phase of the project.  The funding concept is similar to the process that was explained to us at the Danish Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in which many private companies vie for government funding at certain stages of the project, and need to meet certain criteria to continue receiving funding.  This seems much more logical to me than just choosing one company to invest all of the money in, which can hinder healthy competition.

Although I think government investment is necessary, I’m also very aware that funding the research and development of new technology with taxpayer dollars can be frightening and dangerous.  Individuals that promote the investment (particularly those in a political position) are at risk of being blamed if the project fails.  The country’s citizens are also at risk of losing significant tax-payer dollars to private companies if an investment goes south.  Given the fact that you’re investing in experimental technology, there will definitely be some investments that will fail.  However, with such high stakes surrounding the global warming of the planet, it’s necessary to take big risks in order to reap the significant benefits that can come from energy independence and a cleaner, healthier planet.


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