How a Danish city and its citizens are building a green energy transition

Published On: January 14, 2020Categories: Articles

By Bahram Dehghan, Energy City Frederikshavn, Denmark

In spite of limited resources and external constraints, the city of Frederikshavn is planning an ambitious energy transition: By 2030 it will only use clean renewable energy. Integrated plans and energy roadmaps already in place have enabled the municipality to work with the public and private sectors to activate the creative potential of engaged citizenship.

Credit: Energy City Frederikshavn

The municipality of Frederikshavn spans over 648km2, including the city of Frederikshavn with its 23,000 inhabitants, and the smaller cities of Skagen and Sæby and more rural areas. In total there are some 60,000 citizens. 

The economy is shaped by Frederikshavn’s proximity to the sea and its strategic position near the northern point of Denmark: The city of Frederikshavn has a strong maritime industry and the municipality hosts the main Danish naval base. As a coastal city with an economy shaped by the ocean, leading the way on climate change and rising sea levels is essential for the city’s future.

Frederikshavn’s Masterplan for Renewable Energy 2030

With its ambition to switch to an energy supply that is 100% renewable by 2030, Frederikshavn has set itself a bold target to mitigate climate change. Figures show that the municipality is already on the right track: Between 2010 and 2015, the city reduced its CO2 emissions by 15.9%. Renewable energy now contributes 27% of its total consumption, and the total itself decreased by 5.8% in the same period.

The staff responsible for Frederikshavn’s energy management understand the need for more land and resources in order to accelerate the energy transition including in the rural areas. The recent expansion of the municipality’s geographic borders during the Danish municipal reform in 2007 was an important step in this direction. 

A masterplan was subsequently introduced, in 2014, and applies to the whole ‘Energy Municipality’. This ambitious roadmap is comprehensive and detailed, and includes 34 separate action plans with recommendations. Together, these will guide the transition to a new, clean and renewable energy system. 

Switching to renewables: best practice examples

The masterplan is an essential tool used by energy managers in the city, enabling all the necessary steps to be overseen and coordinated in a holistic transition process, with careful annual evaluations that are reviewed and approved by the city council.

Since the masterplan came into effect, the city has worked hard to follow up with detailed action plans translating theory into practice. One of the most advanced plans is that for the collective district heating system, in line with high standards across Denmark. In addition, the municipality’s entire public bus fleet and five waste removal trucks are now running on biogas. Extra public biogas pump stations have been installed, to encourage residents to switch away from cars that use fossil fuels. In addition, the city is exploring the possibility of installing electric vehicle charging stations for heavy transport vehicles such as trucks and buses.  

Credit: Energy City Frederikshavn

The municipality is also in the process of planning a biogas plant that will have a production capacity of 11GWh/year. This includes organising farmers, who will supply biomass in the form of manure and other products, into a suppliers’ association; and overseeing negotiations with the investor. The volume of future biogas to be produced equates to 7% of the municipality’s total energy consumption in 2015.

Three municipal utilities have already switched to entirely renewable energy sources. The most technically innovative of these is the (prototype) wave energy plant ‘Tordenskiold’, anchored out to sea northeast of Frederikshavn. This is now generating clean electricity, after 13 years of testing and planning. 

The municipality is also retrofitting public buildings and single-family residential units, and planning a mass retrofit of one of the condominiums in the city.

Frederikshavn is lobbying for more action at the national level. It is advocating for national level policies that would see the Danish state providing affordable loans to low-income households to retrofit their homes. In the meantime, the city has trained bankers to ensure that they know how to assess requests for loans to finance retrofitting, and has ensured that the public utility company provides energy advice to residents free of charge. In the future, it hopes to give free energy advice to industry and commercial businesses as well, since these are responsible for 20% of the city’s total energy consumption. 

Energy democracy and capacity building

Denmark has a strong democratic tradition and is often referred to as a role model because of its social democratic governance and welfare policies. The Energy Municipality of Frederikshavn is drawing on this spirit to power the energy transition. Human and financial resources are very limited and there are only three full-time staff. However, the municipal office is dedicated to making things happen, and has managed to turn this weakness into a strength. By networking extensively with private and public stakeholders, educational institutions and residents, the city is building the collective capacity needed to deliver the planned projects. Apart from activating capital, networking helps to raise awareness and to create a consensus amongst public and private entities and the general population. One thing is certain – a successful green transition requires everyone’s involvement and effort.

During discussions about the possible forms that partnerships and ownership solutions might take, it became clear that municipal ownership of the energy sector would be mutually beneficial, providing democratic control and accountability, and enabling interventions by elected bodies with a public mandate to serve the needs of people and planet. One of the two energy suppliers is entirely owned by the municipality, and consumers govern a number of cooperative energy suppliers in the region as well. 

Several initiatives have been established by Frederikshavn, with democratic and innovative ideas from citizens being explored.

  • My Energy City

This initiative was set up as a forum for citizens to discuss their visions of energy generation and use in Frederikshavn both before and after 2030. Citizens’ participation is crucial because they can support politicians who favour a green transition and oppose those who don’t, and overturn unfavourable legislation. This is important: in the past, many citizens have expressed their frustration about the fact that there are limits to what they can do as individuals. Many feel that decision-makers in the capital, Copenhagen, do not always make the right decisions. The forum is also meant to connect citizens from urban and rural areas, fostering cross-pollination and constructive exchange between them. As part of the project, sustainable development has been integrated into school curricula, and pupils regularly visit the Energy City manager to talk about the importance of sustainable and democratic transitions in the energy sector. So far 28 citizens have engaged in the forum, and they are, in turn, recruiting fellow residents to join. 

  • Youth Climate Council

A Youth Climate Council was set up to unlock the creative and innovative potential of young people in the region, who are acutely aware of the importance of Frederikshavn’s energy transition for their own futures. The group focuses on educational activities and is looking for ways to implement the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals within the context of Frederikshavn. They also participate in national and European-wide activities.

  • Towards a steering committee

The City Council is planning to create a steering committee on sustainable development and green growth, which will be headed by the mayor. The group will probably consist of representatives of the Citizens’ Forum and the Youth Climate Council. In addition, industry representatives, educational institutions and local politicians would have seats at the table. 

Opportunities and challenges: Towards Frederikshavn 2030

Frederikshavn’s masterplan has become an exemplary roadmap and parts of it have been adopted by the Danish National Agency for Energy Management. 

Credit: Energy City Frederikshavn

However, turning visions into reality is also a question of feasibility. It can depend on legislative changes at a higher political level as well as financial and technical resources. For example, one of the biggest constraints the municipality faces at the moment is national tax regulation that continues to favour fossil fuels over renewable energy. 

This contrasts with the urgent need for the energy transition, which is clearly felt in Frederikshavn, and likely to resonate with popular opinion in many other cities. National governments need to draft effective legislation that enables and supports cities and local governments to drive the “grøn omstilling” – the green energy transition. 


Together with its residents, businesses and other stakeholders, the municipality is capable of doing much more than it does at present. Responsibility needs to be shared by many shoulders, not left to the municipality alone. The Energy Municipality Frederikshavn project is set to be a success, with its model of public and private sectors working together, overseen by democratic local government. 

About the author:

Bahram Dehghan is Chief Consultant for Energy City Frederikshavn, Denmark. He is a polytechnic and marine engineer and has been an energy consultant for over 20 years. Bahram is responsible for evaluating the action plans for the Covenant of Mayors and for reporting to the city council about how Frederikshavn’s energy transition plans are progressing. 

This blog article was co-created by Lukas Toedte and is part of the mPOWER blog series in which cities and towns share how they are building better energy futures.