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Fostering the global energy transition

The mayor of a Danish seaport on fostering the global energy transition

Jesper Frost Rasmussen, the mayor of Esbjerg on Denmark’s North Sea coast, discusses both his ambitions for the future and the challenges standing in his way.

Esbjerg might not crop up in many tourist guides to Denmark, but in economic terms, it has long played an outsized role. As a port town on the North Sea coast and home to some 70,000 inhabitants, its fortunes have always been tied to the sea. Until the 1970s, this meant predominantly fishing, alongside exports and shipping, but for the past 50 years, ever since Denmark began producing oil and gas, Esbjerg has been one of the most crucial ports for the country’s offshore activities. And today, it is looking towards a greener future.

The man charged with shepherding in this future is Jesper Frost Rasmussen, who has been the town’s elected mayor since 2017. Before joining the city council in 2010, he ran DIN Forsyning, a Danish utility company, so his career has long been connected to the energy sector. Alongside his mayoral role, he also currently holds the presidency of the World Energy Cities Partnership (WECP), an organisation that connects leading energy cities around the world that are committed to the energy transition. As he puts it, the WECP members are at the forefront of this global shift. “This is not something we’re just talking about, we don’t just have plans,” he says, sitting in his office in central Esbjerg. “This is something we do for a living. We have experiences that we can share.”

Jesper’s other main priority since taking office has been education, particularly encouraging more people to study in Esbjerg, in turn creating a highly skilled workforce. “Young people in Denmark aren’t that mobile,” the mayor explains. “When they do their education in Copenhagen, it’s very difficult to get them out of Copenhagen again. So, we need the education and the employment possibilities here.” In fact, he has identified the workforce as one of the major potential limiting factors for Esbjerg’s future growth; hence the focus he has placed upon it.

Much of this strategy is down to improving the universities and their links with local industry. But another large part is around making Esbjerg a more liveable and more attractive place to live. The downtown has had a makeover in recent years, which revived the pedestrian streets and the central town square. The city council has also allocated 50 million Danish kroner to the town’s cultural offering. “Going forward, we will focus even more on culture and experiences,” says Jesper. “Because we know that students and young people, and also older people, want things to do in their spare time as well.” All this activity of course combines to create a virtuous circle, where young people come to study, enjoy their time in Esbjerg, decide to stay on in the town and then find high-skilled employment in the town’s energy sector, in the process bolstering the town’s economy.

However, what will that energy sector of the future actually look like? The war in Ukraine has introduced some uncertainty into this equation. Jesper estimates that there are currently around 15,000 jobs in the energy sector in Esbjerg; around two-thirds are related to oil and gas, while the remaining third is in the offshore wind sector. He expects these numbers to flip in the coming years, but the progress has definitely slowed down. Indeed, the town’s coal-fired power station was due to be taken offline early in 2023, but the plan has been pushed back due to energy-security concerns. “If you had asked me two years ago, I would have expected the oil and gas industries to decline faster,” says Jesper. “Now, with the new situation in Europe, I think this will be an important part of our story also in the coming years.”

Nonetheless, the offshore wind industry is booming and is set to grow for the next few decades. Last year, the Esbjerg Declaration was signed by the governments of Germany, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, which set out to make the North Sea the so-called “green power plant” of Europe. It calls for these countries to deliver at least 65 gigawatts of green offshore wind power together by 2030 and to increase capacity to at least 150 gigawatts by 2050. The ambition is that these countries join forces to deliver half of the green offshore wind power required by the EU in 2050 in order for the bloc to meet its climate promises.

Esbjerg’s port is, unsurprisingly, a huge boon for the town here. Already it is Europe’s leading port for shipping offshore wind tur- bines, and that achievement looks set to continue. One crucial element of this equation is that wind-turbine components are huge – and getting larger. “Soon, you won’t be able to transport them on roads,” Jesper explains. “And so all the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] will have to ensure production close to ports.”Esbjerg, he says, has the port, as well as the capacity and the space for production, because “we have been growing with the industry”. He is confident that the wind turbines of the future will be built near Esbjerg and shipped from the port as well, making the town an important hub for this future industry.

Ever since a harbour was built in Esbjerg way back in the 1860s, the town’s fate has been tied to the ocean. Now, with the North Sea set to become the source of renewable energy for a huge proportion of the continent of Europe, it’s clear that Esbjerg will continue to look out onto the waves to secure its fortunes

Over the past six years since Jesper became mayor of Esbjerg, he has had two central priorities. The first is reaching the town’s target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, a target that is significantly more ambitious than the Danish central government’s goal of reducing emissions by 70% in that same timeframe. “We have high ambitions in this project,” the mayor says. “It’s something we’ve done locally and, as you can probably judge, it’s not easy.”

In many ways, Esbjerg is already ahead of the curve. All the municipality’s public buses are electric, for instance. Three years ago, 22 new garbage trucks came into service, all run on biogas and reducing CO2 emissions by more than 600 tonnes per year compared to their forerunners. The town’s port authority has also signed a contract to receive green hydrogen from a wind farm in the nearby suburb of Måde, which will supply fossil-free power to vessels in the port. The excess heat generated by the production of this green hydrogen will in turn be used in the town’s district heating network. In time, this will mean the city’s current coal-fired power plant will be phased out.