Preben Maegaard—the Father of the Folkecenter–Has Died

By Paul Gipe

Preben Maegaard died 25 March 2021. He was 84.

His death likely won’t mean much to most North Americans. After all he wasn’t a household name like reality TV stars Caitlyn Jenner or Kanye West.

It should.

Our future and that of the planet may very well depend on the work he and other Danish pioneers of wind energy did in the early days. He was a visionary among visionaries at a time when the establishment of the day called them crazy, unrealistic, and naive–among the more polite terms used.

Now we consider them prescient. Wind works. It can be found everywhere, not just in Denmark. Now you can find commercial wind energy spinning out clean electricity in–of all places–my central Indiana hometown. Even the President of the United States announces–to much laudatory fanfare–that a country long a laggard in renewable energy development will make wind a centerpiece of the country’s efforts to combat climate change. Preben wasn’t here to see it, but he can rest in peace knowing that he had a role in making that announcement, and the many more like it, come to pass.

Among his many credits, Preben was a co-founder of Denmark’s Folkecenter for Renewable Energy with his partner Jane Kruse. He invited me to join the Folkecenter fraternity two decades ago and it was one of the high points of my career. Living and working in Denmark among the people who gave the world modern wind energy was the experience of a lifetime for me and Nancy.

Preben soon became a mentor. He was constant. He never lost hope that we—all of us—could make a difference. When I despaired that our work was being sabotaged by the forces of the status quo, he kept plugging away, trying to find a way around the obstructionists. He could see the big picture and look beyond the nibbling of doubt that bedevils us mere mortals.

Preben could talk your ear off in English, German, or his native Dansk. I once rode with him and a van full of Canadian activists across the Maritimes. He got into conversation shortly after we left the hotel with Volker Thomson, a German of Danish descent and a good talker himself. They never stopped. The rest of us went to sleep and when we awoke they were still at it.

Preben could talk because he had something to say. He was a busy man, but he always made time to talk to people. I asked him about it in my last interview with him in the fall of 2012. He answered that he could always tell a good listener.

I like to think that he also believed in the pebble in the pond analogy. You never know where the ripples might take an idea. Talking to the one right person could make all the difference in seeing a once outlandish concept, such as wind power, become the norm.

Preben was a missionary of sustainability and the Folkecenter was in many ways a secular monastery. We shared housing. We shared meals. And we shared a dream that renewable energy would one day replace fossil fuels. That dream is slowly coming to fruition because of the nurturing of people like Preben who dedicated their lives to seeing it happen.

I feature Preben in my most recent book in part because he was there at the creation. I show a picture of him standing in front of a Tvind blade he proudly displayed at the Folkecenter.

For those who don’t know, Tvind was the Danish giant that shook the world of wind in the late 1970s. The blade design they used saved the wind industry from oblivion and led tiny Denmark to dominate wind energy to the present. Fittingly, the wind turbine at Tvind is still operating today more than 42 years after it was installed while all the other giants of its day have long gone to the scrapyard.

We owe the survival of wind energy to a meeting–a Vindtræf–in 1978 of a small group who had the temerity to demand that manufacturers build wind turbines that had a reliable and fail-safe means for aerodynamically protecting the rotor from destruction. The nerve. Imagine demanding that companies build wind turbines that work. Such radicals. That group included Preben, the now famous wind turbine designer Henrik Stiesdal, and Erik Gove-Nielsen who took the Tvind blade design and adapted it to the budding industry.

Preben and his co-conspirators saw that wind energy would only work when the wind turbines lasted long enough to pay off their investment. This seems patently obvious today, but it wasn’t always so. This cabal of non-conformists could see what was needed when others–the technological gatekeepers of the day–could not.

This kind of visionary thinking was brought home to me when I listened to back-to-back presentations by Preben and Johannes Lackmann, a pioneer of community-owned wind energy in Germany. (There’s another radical concept: owning the wind and the wind turbines yourself.) Independent of each other and without coordination before hand both had reached the same conclusion. To address climate change and energy security, we must move well beyond 100% renewable energy in electricity supply and build an integrated network capable of using more than 150% renewable energy, up to as much as 300% renewable energy to offset fossil fuels in transportation, and heating.

In other words, the then radical idea in the mid 2000s of moving to 100% renewable energy wasn’t nearly enough. It was a stunning moment. There was a subtle buzz in the audience as the idea sunk in.

Preben was a font of wind lore. I remember him proudly showing me the collection of historic Danish wind turbines and components of Danmarks Vindkrafthistoriske Samling he stored in a dedicated building at the Folkecenter. It was a wind geek’s dream. I felt like a kid in a candy store. Here was the “iron,” as we say, that made the world of wind energy a reality.

Preben kept at it long after others would have retired. He proselytized to the end. Preben was struck down with a stroke bringing the gospel of renewable energy to a conference in North Africa. He had been in ill health since.

Preben was a man who made a difference. That’s the most any of us can wish for—a life well lived and of consequence.

We’ll miss him.