At first glance, the small Danish island of Samsø doesn´t look like a place that would attract international fame. With less than 4,000 inhabitants living on under 115 square kilometers of land, it's not exactly a geopolitical player. But a visit to Samsø reveals an island with outsized ambitions for moving into a clean energy future – and others around the world are starting to take notice.
Here, wind turbines are aligned in straight rows in the ocean that surrounds the island. Solar panels dot the roofs of houses and farms everywhere, as well as parks. Initiatives have involved the local population and private investors in helping Samsø realize its green, clean energy potential – and since 2005 it has been producing more electricity than it consumes, all from the sun and wind.
At the same time, Samsø gets more than 70 percent of its heating power from biomass, solar and high-efficient heating pumps that extract heat from the air. Wood chips, hay and other non-fossil fuel sources employed in central heating systems and energy efficient renovations have drastically reduced fossil fuel use across the island.
Meanwhile, other innovative projects like the extraction of natural gas from manure and garbage dumps have strengthened the island´s green credentials.
How It Happened
It all started in 1997 when Samsø won a state-financed competition to be “Denmark´s Renewable Island.” That spark led to the evolution of a project that quickly involved both private and public actors. In the years since, more private investments combined with state and municipal funding have driven the island´s transformation.
And it hasn´t been only the environmental, feel-good carrot that made this renewables movement a success; basic economic motives also played a key role getting islanders to participate. Many are shareholders in the wind turbines and central heating systems. And many have installed their own wood chips boilers, household windmills, heat pumps and solar panels.
The economic and environmental benefits couldn´t be clearer as people on Samsø are both saving on their power bill and profiting from the shares they holding in the clean energy enterprises. Go figure: as oil prices have risen, the whole experiment has turned into a great investment for the island and its residents.
Smart Investors Create a Smart Future
One local who saw economic potential in the project early on was Jørgen Tranberg. Tranberg has invested almost $1.2 million purchasing shares in ocean wind turbines. He fully owns a 1MW land-based wind turbine and owns half the shares in another 2.5MW land-based wind turbine.
“You don´t invest that much for fun,” he explains. “Before this project, when you invested in a few stocks, it was mainly for the sake of soft values. But when you invest in this size, it is another matter.”
“When I just moved to the island, I was standing on the top of a hill and thought about how windy this place is. Then came the wind turbine projects, and I believed that it could give a reasonable surplus.”
It´s not all about the money, of course. Tranberg is well aware of the more climate-friendly, environmental future he is helping promote with renewable energy.
“When the wind turbines were introduced, no one was interested in CO2 emissions. But most people have now recognized that the temperature is rising – except those who buy houses right on the edge of the sea,” Tranberg says.
Another inhabitant, Bo Agerskov, is participating on a smaller and more private level. He has his own wood chip boiler and solar panels. For Agerskov, economic interest was an important reason, but not the only one, for investing in renewable power.
“It was a combination of environment and economy – and high oil prices. My wood chip boiler can also be connected to a wind turbine,“ Agerskov explains, and “with one of those, I can get 100 percent self-supplying with renewable energy.“
“It is a goal I would like to reach,“ he adds, because “renewable energy has always interested me. If you follow what is going on in the world around you, it automatically becomes interesting.“
International Attention – And a Leader In the Green Mountain State
The success of Samsø is by no means a secret. It has quickly become a destination for green tourism, bringing added business to the island. Commercial and political delegations from the U.S., China, Japan and other countries have also visited – and brought ideas and inspiration home with them as they attempt to green their own economies on the Danish model.
One such place is Montpelier, the capital of Vermont, where a wood-fueled central heating system for the city – designed on the Samsø model – is just six months away from completion. Montpelier´s declared goal is to become a “net-zero” fossil fuel consumer by 2030, producing all the energy it needs from renewable sources.
If things go as planned, more electric vehicles, solar power arrays and efficient heating pumps will be an established part of the city´s landscape – an ambition supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, which has awarded the project $8 million in funding with more investment planned in the future.
“Deploying technologies in our cities and towns will have economic and environmental benefits for all Vermonters,” said Montpelier´s utility chief, Mary Powell. “It makes perfect sense that Vermont would be the state where we can successfully make our capital net zero.”
Back on Samsø, the newest set of plans involves supplying the island with 100 percent heating from renewables – and altogether eliminating fossil fuel use for transportation both on the island itself, and in the boats used to get to and from it.
Today, some of the cars and tractors here already run on electricity, and increasingly on biofuel – a product people want to produce more of, by figuring out the best kinds of plants for energy extraction. Around the clock, it seems, technicians, engineers, innovators – and regular islanders, concerned about the costs both to themselves and to the climate – are seeking ways to make the world outside their doorstep a greener, cleaner place.
For more information about Samsø see this general site. Find out here about the Energy Academy – the top source of renewable energy knowledge on the island. And read here for more on Montpelier´s renewable city project.