Danish island performs energy miracle

Energy Matters0

Jorgen Tranberg looks a farmer to his roots: grubby blue overalls, crumpled T-shirt and crinkled, weather-beaten features. His laconic manner, blond hair and black clogs also reveal his Scandinavian origins. Jorgen farms at Norreskifte on Samso, a Danish island famed for its rich, sweet strawberries and delicately flavoured early potatoes. This place is steeped in history – the Vikings built ships and constructed canals here – while modern residents of Copenhagen own dozens of the island’s finer houses.

But Samso has recently undergone a remarkable transformation, one that has given it an unexpected global importance and international technological standing. Although members of a tightly knit, deeply conservative community, Samsingers – with Jorgen in the vanguard – have launched a renewable-energy revolution on this windswept scrap of Scandinavia. Solar, biomass, wind and wood-chip power generators have sprouted up across the island, while traditional fossil-fuel plants have been closed and dismantled. Nor was it hard to bring about these changes. ‘For me, it has been a piece of cake,’ says Jorgen. Nevertheless, the consequences have been dramatic.

Ten years ago, islanders drew nearly all their energy from oil and petrol brought in by tankers and from coal-powered electricity transmitted to the island through a mainland cable link. Today that traffic in energy has been reversed. Samsingers now export millions of kilowatt hours of electricity from renewable energy sources to the rest of Denmark. In doing so, islanders have cut their carbon footprint by a staggering 140 per cent. And what Samso can do today, the rest of the world can achieve in the near future, it is claimed.

Last year, carbon dioxide reached a record figure of 384 parts per million – a rise of around 35 per cent on levels that existed before the Industrial Revolution. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that such changes could soon have a dramatic impact on the world’s weather patterns. Already, Arctic sea ice is dwindling alarmingly and scientists say the world has only a few years left to make serious carbon-output cuts before irreversible, devastating climate change ensues. Samso suggests one route for avoiding such a fate.

Everywhere you travel on the island you see signs of change. There are dozens of wind turbines of various sizes dotted across the landscape, houses have solar-panelled roofs, while a long line of giant turbines off the island’s southern tip swirl in the wind. Towns are linked to district heating systems that pump hot water to homes. These are either powered by rows of solar panels covering entire fields, or by generators which burn straw from local farms, or timber chips cut from the island’s woods.

None of these enterprises has been imposed by outsiders or been funded by major energy companies. Each plant is owned either by a collective of local people or by an individual islander. The Samso revolution has been an exercise in self-determination – a process in which islanders have decided to demonstrate what can be done to alleviate climate damage while still maintaining a comfortable lifestyle.

Consider Jorgen. As he wanders round his cowsheds, he scarcely looks like an energy entrepreneur. Yet the 47-year-old farmer is a true power broker. Apart from his fields of pumpkins and potatoes, as well as his 150 cows, he has erected a giant 1 megawatt (mw) wind turbine that looms down on his 120-hectare dairy farm. Four other great machines stand beside it, swirling in Samso’s relentless winds. Each device is owned either by a neighbouring farmer or by a collective of locals. In addition, Jorgen has bought a half share in an even bigger, 2.3mw generator, one of the 10 devices that guard the south coast of Samso and now help to supply a sizeable chunk of Denmark’s electricity.

The people of Samso were once the producers of more than 45,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – about 11 tonnes a head. Through projects like these, they have cut that figure to -15,000. (That strange minus figure comes from the fact that Samsingers export their excess wind power to mainland Denmark, where it replaces electricity that would otherwise be generated using coal or gas.) It is a remarkable transformation, wrought mainly by Samsingers themselves, albeit with the aid of some national and European Union funds and some generous, guaranteed fixed prices that Denmark provides for wind-derived electricity. The latter ensures turbines pay for themselves over a six- or seven-year period. After that, owners can expect to rake in some tidy profits.

‘It has been a very good investment,’ admits Jorgen. ‘It has made my bank manager very happy. But none of us is in it just for the money. We are doing it because it is fun and it makes us feel good.’ Nor do his efforts stop with his turbines. Jorgen recently redesigned his cowshed so it requires little straw for bedding for his cattle. Each animal now has its own natty mattress. Instead, most of the straw from Jorgen’s fields is sold to his local district heating plant, further increasing his revenue and limiting carbon dioxide production. (Carbon dioxide is absorbed as crops grow in fields. When their stalks – straw – are burned, that carbon dioxide is released, but only as a gas that has been recycled within a single growing season. By contrast, oil, coal and gas are the remains of plants that are millions of years old and so, when burned, release carbon dioxide that had been sequestered aeons ago.)

Samso’s transformation owes its origin to a 1997 experiment by the Danish government. Four islands, Laeso, Samso, Aero and Mon, as well as the region of Thyholm in Jutland, were each asked to compete in putting up the most convincing plan to cut their carbon outputs and boost their renewable-energy generation. Samso won.

Although it lies at the heart of Denmark, the nation’s fractured geography also ensures the island is one of its most awkward places to reach, surrounded as it is by the Kattegat, an inlet of the North Sea. To get to Samso from Copenhagen, you have to travel by train for a couple of hours to Kalundborg and then take one of the twice daily ferries to Samso. A total of 4,100 people live here, working on farms or in hotels and restaurants. The place is isolated and compact and ideal for an experiment in community politics and energy engineering – particularly as it is low-lying and windswept. Flags never droop on Samso.

The job of setting up the Samso experiment fell to Soren Harmensen, a former environmental studies teacher, with thinning greyish hair and an infectious enthusiasm for all things renewable. Outside his project’s headquarters, at the Samso Energiakademi – a stylish, barn-like building designed to cut energy consumption to an absolute minimum – there is an old, rusting petrol pump parked on the front steps. A label on it says, simply: ‘No fuel. So what now, my love?’ Step inside and you will find no shortage of answers to that question.

Soren is a proselytiser and proud of his island’s success. However, achieving it was not an easy matter. It took endless meetings to get things started. Every time there was a community issue at stake, he would arrive and preach his sermon about renewable energy and its value to the island. Slowly, the idea took hold and eventually public meetings were held purely to discuss his energy schemes. Even then, the process was erratic, with individual islanders’ self-interest triggering conflicts. One Samsinger, the owner of a cement factory, proposed a nuclear plant be built on the island instead of wind turbines. He would then secure the concrete contract for the reactor, he reasoned. The plan was quietly vetoed.

‘We are not hippies,’ says Soren. ‘We just want to change how we use our energy without harming the planet or without giving up the good life.’

Eventually the first projects were launched, a couple of turbines on the west coast, and a district heating plant. ‘Nothing was achieved without talk and a great deal of community involvement,’ says Soren, a message he has since carried round the planet. ‘I visited Shropshire recently,’ he says. ‘A wind-farm project there was causing a huge fuss, in particular among the three villages nearest the proposed site. The planners would soothe the objections of one village, only for the other two to get angry – so local officials would turn to them. Then the first village started to object all over again. The solution was simple, of course. Give each village a turbine, I told them. The prospect of cheap electricity would have changed everyone’s minds.’ Needless to say, this did not happen.

On another visit – this time to Islay, off the west coast of Scotland – Soren found similar problems. ‘I was asked to attend a public meeting to debate the idea of turning the island into a renewable energy centre like Samso. But nearly all the speakers droned on about ideals and about climate change in general. But what people really want is to be involved themselves and to do something that can make a difference to the world. That point was entirely lost.

‘Later I found that a local Islay distillery was installing a new set of boilers. Why not use the excess water to heat local homes, I suggested. That would be far too much bother, I was told. Yet that was just the kind of scheme that could kick-start a renewable-energy revolution.’

Of course, there is something irritating about this Scandinavian certainty. Not every community is as cohesive as Samso’s, for one thing. And it should also be noted that the island’s transformation has come at a price: roughly 420m kroner – about £40m – that includes money from the Danish government, the EU, local businessmen and individual members of collectives. Thus the Samso revolution cost around £10,000 per islander, although a good chunk has come from each person’s own pockets. Nevertheless, if you multiply that sum by 60m – the population of Great Britain – you get a figure of around £600bn as the cost of bringing a similar revolution to Britain. It is utterly impractical, of course – a point happily acknowledged by Soren.

‘This is a pilot project to show the world what can be done. We are not suggesting everyone makes the sweeping changes that we have. People should cherry pick from what we have done in order to make modest, but still meaningful carbon emission cuts. The crucial point is that we have shown that if you want to change how we generate energy, you have to start at the community level and not impose technology on people. For example, Shell heard about what we were doing and asked to be involved – but only on condition they ended up owning the turbines. We told them to go away. We are a nation of farmers, of course. We believe in self-sufficiency.’

Jesper Kjems was a freelance journalist based in Copenhagen when he and his wife came to Samso for a holiday four years ago. They fell in love with the island and moved in a few months later, although neither had jobs. Jesper started playing in a local band and met Soren Harmensen, its bassist, who sold him the Samso energy dream. Today Jesper is official spokesman for the Samso project.

Outside the town of Nordby, he showed me round its district heating project. A field has been covered with solar panels mounted to face the sun. Cold water is pumped in at one end to emerge, even on a gloomy day, as seriously hot water – around 70C – which is then piped to local houses for heating and washing. On particularly dark, sunless days, the plant switches mode: wood chips are scooped by robot crane into a furnace which heats the plant’s water instead. The entire system is completely automated. ‘There are some living creatures involved, however,’ adds Jesper. ‘A flock of sheep is sent into the field every few days to nibble the grass before it grows long enough to prevent the sun’s rays hitting the panels.’

Everywhere you go, you find renewable- energy enthusiasts like Jesper. Crucially, most of them are recent recruits to the cause. Nor do planning rows concerning the sight of ‘eyesore’ wind turbines affect Samsingers as they do Britons. ‘No one minds wind turbines on Samso for the simple reason that we all own a share of one,’ says electrician Brian Kjar.

And that is the real lesson from Samso. What has happened here is a social not a technological revolution. Indeed, it was a specific requirement of the scheme, when established, that only existing, off-the-shelf renewable technology be used. The real changes have been those in attitude. Brian’s house near the southern town of Orby reveals the consequences. He has his own wind turbine, which he bought second-hand for £16,000 – about a fifth of its original price. This produces more electricity than his household needs, so he uses the excess to heat water that he keeps in a huge insulated tank that he also built himself. On Samso’s occasional windless days, this provides heating for his home when the 70ft turbine outside his house is not moving.

‘Everyone knows someone who is interested in renewable energy today,’ he adds. ‘Something like this starts with a few people. It just needs time to spread. That is the real lesson of Samso.’