On the outskirts of Copenhagen, in a nondescript tan brick building, is a lab that could hold the keys to the electricity grid of the future. PowerLabDK, at the Danish Technical University, has Europe’s largest grid simulator as well as a high voltage test lab, where researchers can create lightning using a massive capacitor bank. But the most exciting feature is largely invisible: a real-time connection to the grid control room on the Danish island of Bornholm.
Bornholm, population 40,000, sits about 100 miles east of Copenhagen, in the middle of the Baltic Sea. The island’s utility, Østkraft, gets a huge share of its electricity from wind and solar, and another large chunk from Sweden and Norway via a sea cable—the only connection between the island and the Nordic power grid. From massive computer monitors on the walls of PowerLabDK, researchers can see the same information about what’s happening on Bornholm as Østkraft’s grid controllers—and “actually a little bit more,” according to Professor Jacob Østergaard, who heads up PowerLabDK.
Not only can researchers monitor the island’s grid remotely, but they collect all the data and use it to run advanced simulations, testing what would happen if, say, all of the island’s solar suddenly went offline. They can also isolate the island from the rest of the Nordic grid and study it as a closed system.
“We can really stress the solutions that are needed to deal with a lot of fluctuating renewables,” Østergaard said.
In other words, they can use Bornholm as a real-life test lab for the grid of the future.
Last year, Denmark got 40 percent of its electricity from wind. By 2030, the country’s entire power system is supposed to be 100 percent renewable. Unlike traditional energy sources, like gas and coal, wind and solar are highly variable—there one minute, gone the next. That’s a huge challenge for operating the power grid, which has to balance supply and demand in real-time. But by testing out solutions on Bornholm first, researchers are hoping they’ll be ready: “We at the university can sit behind our computer screens and simulate everything, everything goes smooth, no problem, but when you go to reality you really meet all the true challenges,” Østergaard said.
Bornholm, though, feels like anything but a lab. In fact, it’s more like a resort. On the ferry to the island, most people are vacationers, going to golf or hike or sail or just hang out at the beach. Bornholm’s unofficial anthem, an upbeat tune from an old movie, with lines about sunshine and smoked herring, plays over the loudspeakers, creating a folksy atmosphere. The ferry docks in the island’s main town of Rønne, a picturesque hamlet full of colorful houses with red roofs that would be a good setting for a postcard photography workshop.
Just a short walk down the coastal road though, the test lab is in full swing, at the headquarters for the island’s utility, Østkraft. It is a massive complex of buildings, housing biomass and biogas plants, along with a giant tower full of water for district heating of the town. “[We want to be] a working society, with young and old [people] that have things to do,” explained Anna Sofie Poulsen, a project manager for the utility who is in charge of the island’s plan to be entirely renewable by 2025. I ask her what people in the community think about being the guinea pig for the grid of the future, but she objects to the characterization. “I don’t think that’s how we see ourselves,” she said. “more as front runners.”
Bornholm’s traditional industries were extractive–fishing and mining–but the fisheries have all but collapsed and the mines are no longer profitable. Tourism now dominates the economy, but Poulsen says that’s not enough to sustain the community. She wants to steal back the label of “innovation hub” from the big cities and the collaboration with PowerLabDK is part of that. Bornholm has branded itself as the Bright Green Test Island, and Poulsen sees a new, green energy economy growing around it.
The strategy appears to be working. Bornholm gets a lot of visitors who are interested in learning about the various energy projects on the island, and how they work together. There are also green energy businesses popping up.
Witness the Green Solution House, a hotel and conference center a short bus ride from Østkraft that’s been transformed into a showroom for cutting-edge technologies, from solar windows to a pyrolysis plant that generates electricity from food scraps. The hotel’s main tour guide, Peter Sorenson, also happens to be a chemical engineer, which even he admits is a strange skill set for a hotel employee.
“We have a lot of guests who are engineers and architects from all over the world; they want to talk with someone who can speak their language,” he explained.
It’s not exactly what he imagined himself doing with his degree, but it was the job that was available, and as Poulsen put it, “People [on Bornholm] want to be part of solutions, and not just sitting here in this remote island and waiting for the decline.”
This reporting was supported in part by a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.