Johannes Poulsen doesn't look and talk like a wild-eyed Green. But more than anybody else in Europe, the 59-year-old executive has turned clean wind energy into a rival to dirty coal and oil. Poulsen is managing director of the world's largest windmill maker, Denmark's Vestas Wind Systems. Vestas recorded $767 million in revenues in 2000, while profits before taxes hit $103 million. Its stock is up more than 20 times in the past three years. "All of a sudden, companies such as ABB, General Electric, and Westinghouse are thinking seriously about wind power," says Poulsen.
Thanks to innovative business executives such as Poulsen, Europe is moving faster than the U.S. into the clean energies of the future--including fuel cells, solar energy, and windmills. Wind power generates about 13% of Danish electricity, compared with less than 1% of American electricity. And while only one U.S. windmill manufacturer remains in business, Vestas and two other Danish companies hold half of the growing $4.5 billion world market.
Government subsidies help: Denmark puts $300 million a year into supporting wind power. Otherwise, notes Poulsen, it would be cheaper just to boost output of existing coal or oil plants. The subsidies, he says, are necessary to cover the capital investment needed to build a windmill network.
Poulsen got into windmills partly by accident. He began his career at a family-run ice-cream machinery manufacturer in the rural Jutland peninsula west of Copenhagen. Later, he moved on to run a privately owned furniture business. It was in 1987 that he received a call from Vestas. The company, which began as a blacksmith workshop at the turn of the century, specialized in making farm machinery. But after the first oil crisis in the 1970s, it had also branched out into windmills--only to overexpand and plunge into financial near-collapse. "I didn't know much about wind turbines, but I saw that the company had a good, reliable technology," Poulsen recalls.
He sold off the farm machinery division and focused the company on windmills. Under his direction, Vestas has increased the size of its generators and improved computer controls to boost the efficiency of its machines. The best Vestas windmills now produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity for about 5 cents--half the price of five years ago. They cost from $500,000 to $1.5 million.
With interest in wind turbines picking up, Poulsen has to worry about the competition. Giant Swedish-Swiss power company ABB, for example, recently announced that it would develop a powerful new gearless windmill. Nevertheless, analysts believe Vestas' two decades' head start will keep it ahead. "Vestas is the Mercedes-Benz of the wind business," says Christian Reinholdt, an analyst at Carnegie Brokers in Copenhagen. That's quite an achievement for a quiet Scandinavian Green.