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Ambitious Danish island ends fossil fuel use

A small Danish island ends fossil fuel use by combining ambitious aims with ensuring that local people have a say in cleaner replacements.

LONDON, 11 February, 2019 Tackling climate change is urgent. It’s too urgent to be feasible, say some critics. But as one Danish island ends fossil fuel use, its story shows it  may be time to think again.

In five years, by 2023, the UK Met Office says, global warming could temporarily rise by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the target agreed by 195 governments in 2015. So the world needs to switch fast from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The island of Samsø, off Denmark’s east coast, has wasted no time. Between 1998 and 2007 it abandoned its total dependence on imported fossil fuels and now relies entirely on renewables, mainly wind and biomass. It’s been singled out as the world’s first 100% renewable island by the Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA), which says Samsø can teach the world some vital lessons about changing fast and radically.

In 1997 Samsø, with 4,000 inhabitants, entered a Danish government competition to develop a model renewable energy community, aiming to prove that the country’s target of reducing carbon emissions by 21% was achievable.

Samsø’s winning proposal was based on strong community engagement and a cooperative ownership strategy. It showed how to make renewables a social, economic and energy success.

“Policy-making is too often limited to what is do-able in the short-term; establishing an ambitious mission can help reframe a problem, making the impossible possible”

With wind power now projected to be Europe’s biggest energy source by 2027, the RTA says, one essential element in making it work successfully is how it is managed − and Samsø is a trailblazer.

What the islanders did was straightforward enough. By the year 2000 they had installed 11 wind turbines, covering their electricity needs. A further 10 offshore turbines were erected in 2002, generating enough energy to offset emissions from their cars, buses, tractors and the ferry to the mainland. Three-quarters of their heating and hot water now comes from biomass boilers fuelled with locally grown straw.

Samsø’s transition, the Alliance says, proved that a wholesale shift to renewable energy was possible with existing technology and limited government assistance.

Nowadays, residents are producing so much more clean energy than they need (and exporting what they don’t use) that, in effect, they have an average annual CO2 footprint of minus 12 tonnes per person, helping their fellow citizens to lower their emissions too (the average Dane emits 6.2 tonnes of CO2 a year, the average Briton 10 tonnes).

Active buy-in

Samsø, the argument runs, proves the effectiveness of setting ambitious targets – and meeting them. The Alliance says Samsø’s transition is impressive because it was achieved with the active buy-in (both figuratively and financially) of the local community.

Winning hearts and minds was crucial. People often oppose on-shore wind turbines as a visual intrusion, a blot on the landscape. So the transition organisers, Samsø Energy Academy, worked out how to include the islanders as the turbines’ owners.

They had a simple principle: if you could see a turbine from your window, you could sign on as a co-investor, meaning that anyone living with the technology had a stake in it and stood to.benefit

With so many islanders having a direct stake in the turbines there is now near unanimity that the renewable transition has been good for Samsø. Of the 11 onshore turbines, nine are owned privately by local farmers and two by local cooperatives. Five of the offshore turbines are owned by the municipality, three privately and two cooperatively by small shareholders.

Sceptical island

Before the transition began Samsø had relied mainly on oil, with its electricity generated in coal-fired power plants on the mainland. The potential for renewables had not been explored, and there was deep scepticism towards them. A lack of opportunities for education and work had led many young people to leave the island.

The islanders embraced the transition, but not because of climate change. Instead, most looked to its potential to provide jobs, strengthen the local economy and secure greater energy independence.

Key to Samsø’s success, the Alliance believes, was the insistence on transparency, consultation, and starting from what people wanted. From the start there was full disclosure of information, with the master plan published in the island’s library and information shared through the local newspaper and discussed in detail at regular community meetings.

Samsø’s long tradition of agricultural cooperatives also helped to ensure strong local engagement. There was ample time for discussion and decision-making, which helped to build confidence and a strong sense of collective ownership of decisions.

Listening to doubters

Sometimes the organisers’ focus on flexibility and committment to meeting local expectations came at a price. One site planned for an onshore turbine, for example, aroused concerns from birdwatchers, church members and holiday home owners.

So the plans were changed, even though this meant choosing another site where turbine installation was more difficult and less energy could be generated.

The Alliance says: “This meant that the community felt genuine ownership over the siting of the wind turbines, which helped to dispel any negative feelings around them.”

It draws another lesson from Samsø, too. The transition to 100% renewables was achieved, the RTA believes, because the Danish government had an ambitious mission, which everyone wanted to realise:

It says: “Policy-making is too often limited to what is do-able in the short-term; establishing an ambitious mission can help reframe a problem, making the impossible possible.” − Climate News Network


The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.