Renewable Energy Island

Learning from Copenhagen, Post #5

Samsoe Ferry
Samsoe Ferry (by Photo: Katherine Gregor)

Tuesday we visited the island of Samso, a small-scale example to the world of how to achieve carbon neutrality. After a competition sponsored by the Danish government, Samso – a small, bucolic island located between the Baltic and the North Sea – was selected in 1997 to become a case study for renewable energy. It's a sweet story...

The community of about 4,000 people has achieved its goal of becoming self-sufficient in renewable energy, by executing a professional plan provided by PlanEnergit.

Samso offers a charming, picturesque example of what whole nations might try to achieve, but on an intimate scale that’s easy to comprehend. It’s a pastoral place of historic thatched cottages and classic agricultural buildings, grazing livestock, rolling fields of crops (flowering rapeseed/canola, trees bright with red berries, and pumpkins this time of year), and constant views of the sea. Silhouetted against both blue sky and blue sea are its 21 wind turbines.

Our group of five American enviro-journalists took a long mini-bus trip to the coast, then a two-hour ferry ride out to the island. Offshore, we saw the 10 enormous, elegantly sculptural wind turbines in the south sea of Samsoe. Those deliver clean electricity to the mainland grid; that’s considered more than an offset for all of the gasoline and nonrenewable heating used here, including that used by the three ferries serving the island. The islanders’ own energy needs are 100% met by 11 land-installed wind turbines. A power-share agreement with the mainland ensures that the island can “borrow” electricity on days when the wind doesn’t blow sufficiently; it returns equal electricity as a pay-back on windy days.

The towns are connected to district/community heating systems that provide both hot water and heating for about 75% of the island’s 2500 pretty, traditional older homes. (There’s no industry or business to speak of.) There’s a solar farm that provides heating, and a biomass furnace that burns woodchips from Brattingsborg Woods. We visited one of the three straw-fed community biomass heating plants that serve the villages; the straw burned is an agricultural byproduct that used to be burned in the fields. (There I was interviewed by an Australian ABC crew, filming a documentary to air in advance of COP15, and got to tell the Aussies all about renewable energy in Austin!) The local farmers, reportedly, are mostly delighted to have a market for their straw. Some individual homeowners have also installed solar panels, geothermal heating, or wood-pellet furnaces, to replace their old oil-fired boilers.

We enjoyed a traditional Danish lunch of open-face sandwiches at the Samso Energy Academy, a simple architect-designed building with window-walls with lovely views of the fields, that’s also fully sustainable, of course. Our young, blond guide waxed eloquent about energy democracy. He emphasized that what makes Samso notable, as a renewable energy case study, is the way all residents, at all levels of society, have taken pride in being part of the project. Great attention was paid to giving residents a sense of ownership – literally and figuratively. The plan began with open public meetings and attention to benefitting the island’s depressed micro-economy.

Some 450 Samsoe residents now own profitable cooperative shares in the turbines (which were 100% financed by banks). In Denmark, where income tax approaches 50%, noted our guide, the first 3,000 DKK earned from wind power is tax-free ¬ - a huge and popular break from the government. Out in the fields, some of us (not I!) climbed a long, long ladder to the top of a windmill; the rest of us simply listened to the turbine’s gentle whooshing sound in the otherwise silent landscape.

As soon as the technology becomes available, Samsoe also plans to convert to electric or other alternative vehicles. But even now, factoring in the offsets from the wind energy it sends to the mainland, Samsoe is 100% carbon-neutral. What’s next? Islanders envision a “green holiday” industry that serves vacationers who want solar-powered summerhouses served by tiny electric cars. There’s talk of becoming zero-waste next, or setting other ecological goals.

In a sense, Samsoe is too picture-perfect to be true - too small and sweet to be of real significance in solving the daunting problems facing our large, messy, industrialized world. Then again, precisely because the challenges of reversing global warming are so overwhelming, one calm island of hope may be just the carbon-neutral inspiration humans need.

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READ MORE
More Learning from Copenhagen
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Learning from Copenhagen

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