Approaching the tiny Danish island of Samso by sea, the first thing visitors notice are the wind turbines, some rising out of the choppy waters, others towering over lush green fields. The 21 turbines have brought Samso international environmental acclaim – not only do they cover all local electricity needs, but they also offset planet-warming emissions from fossil fuel use in transport, farm equipment and buildings. Surplus clean energy is exported to Denmark’s two main islands, between which Samso sits.
With heating for most homes running on the wood chip, straw and solar energy, the island – just 28 km (17.4 miles) long and with fewer than 4,000 residents – use less clean power than it produces, making its carbon emissions negative. “If you take all of Denmark, we have… carbon emissions of about six, seven tonnes per capita. At Samso, we have minus three,” said Soren Hermansen, director of Samso Energy Academy.
Eleven years after showing the world how to meet electricity needs entirely from renewable energy sources, the island is embarking on the next step. Dubbed Samso 3.0, it aims to stop the use of fossil fuels completely by 2030, 20 years before the European Union is set to achieve that goal.
Globally, climate scientists have said continued fossil fuel use raised carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 and 2018, threatening a goal of curbing the warming they cause, to prevent rising sea levels and catastrophic weather events. “This (plan) is very ambitious. We know that, but we have done it before,” said Hermansen, the architect of Samso’s transformation from a largely agrarian community to renewable energy revolutionaries.
It will require an overhaul of the island’s transport system as well as changing agriculture practices so farms store more carbon than they emit, said Marcel Meijer, Samso’s mayor. On an island that has no roundabouts or traffic lights but boasts the second-largest number of solar cells per inhabitant in Denmark, nearly 80 per cent of local government vehicles are now electric, with five charging stations dotted around Samso.
There are also plans for a biogas plant to turn organic waste and other biomass into fuel for transport, including a state-operated ferry now powered by liquefied natural gas. Other goals include lowering the need for heating in homes and encouraging locals to switch to electric cars.
The challenge is huge, not least because the Danish government has been scaling back its green ambitions, pruning targets and slashing investment. The latest Climate Change Performance Index from a trio of research groups, which tracks efforts by the world’s biggest emitters to combat climate change, ranked Denmark 15 out of 56 countries, below Malta and India. For half a decade, Denmark topped the index.
BORN FROM CRISIS
When Samso won a government competition in 1997 for local communities aspiring to become fully self-sufficient in renewable energy, the island was facing a crisis. A slaughterhouse with about 100 jobs was closing, people were moving away, and imported energy was costing about 55 million Danish crowns ($8.24 million) a year, said Hermansen.
In multiple meetings, he sought the community’s advice and rallied support by emphasising the savings from clean energy, as well as the potential for new jobs and skills from building and maintaining a wind farm and installing solar panels. Ole Klejs Hemmingsen, a plumber and Samso Energy Academy board member, said that was key to getting locals on board.
“Oil prices were going up and people could save money (with) new technology,” he recalled. “And people like me want to make business. I think it drove the process because money was involved.” Required by the government to match state funding for the project, many islanders jointly invested 400 million Danish crowns (then worth over $84 million) for 11 onshore turbines, transforming the image of Samso, once famous for its potatoes.
Fruit farmer Mogens Mahler was among the early investors and used to own one of three wind turbines on his land. “It was, at that time, a hell of a lot of money… we had to get (it) from the bank because no one has that much here,” he said. “I’m the type of guy that I also want to do these (renewables), but it has to give money.”
His home and farm are now lit and heated mainly with green energy, and in about nine years he had made his investment back. But when the price of wind energy dropped, he calculated that with service and insurance, it might no longer be profitable. He sold his turbine to a big company in 2017. Now he regrets that decision, as prices have rebounded. Besides financial gains, turning Samso into a “renewable energy island” gave locals “a little bit of pride”, he added.
It also attracted newcomers, like Lea Hesseldal-Haines, who moved there from London in 2016 with her husband and three children, seeking a better “work-family life balance”. “I wanted my children to grow up in an environment that sort of had the same beliefs as I did,” said Hesseldal-Haines, who now works for the Energy Academy.
Every year, the academy, a light-filled long-house outside the port village of Ballen, welcomes about 5,000 visitors – scientists, politicians, journalists and tourists from across the globe who want to know how to replicate Samso’s success.
Hermansen’s advice is to focus on the community instead of technology. “You have to boil it down to, ‘what’s in it for me?’… so people can see the practical reasons,” he said. Luis Mundaca, a professor at Sweden’s Lund University, said Samso’s example showed public engagement and participation were “critical factors” for places eyeing a low-carbon transition.
Government support and the perception of a fair and transparent process were also key, he added. Hermansen hopes the island’s experience so far will help it achieve its latest vision, despite formidable barriers – from policy and costs to market forces.
The biogas plant, a major component of Samso 3.0, has yet to be built because natural gas prices are just low enough to make it uncompetitive and put off investors, he said. Meanwhile, the Danish government is concerned that going green too quickly would be expensive, making Denmark’s products too pricey for export, he added.
Many of Samso’s wind turbines are nearly 20 years old and will need to be replaced soon, Energy Academy board members said, at a time when subsidies are being reduced. And then there are lifestyle choices – Hermansen drives an electric car, but concedes he cannot cut out all fossil fuels when his job requires international travel.
Nonetheless, he remains optimistic the island can ditch them. When the clean energy project started in 1997, people told him it would never happen. “But we managed to do it,” he said.