A tiny Danish island has completed its journey to becoming the world’s first “renewable energy island,” with its roughly 4,000 residents reducing their emissions to near zero through collective ownership of wind turbines, solar panels, and biomass heating plants.
How did a few visionaries get all the islanders onboard with an energy transition? Inspiring trust in the collective and reminding residents of their personal stakes are key elements, said Søren Hermansen, a lifelong Samsø island resident and keynote speaker at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ recent Sustainable Communities Conference in Ottawa.
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That’s how Samsø was able to make its globally renowned shift off fossil fuels, added Hermansen, CEO and director of the Samsø Energy Academy, who presented himself to delegates last week as a farmer’s son who still “knows how to fix a tractor and drive a combine.”
Adventurous as his Viking ancestors may have been—paddling west even though some of them likely thought, “if we turn around now, we can be back in time for dinner”—Hermansen said it wasn’t easy to get local buy-in on energy self-sufficiency. Not even on a small, 114-square-kilometre island with a once relatively homogenous population, now also home to immigrants from Eastern Europe and refugees from Syria and North Africa.
He said Samsø’s journey to become the world’s first “renewable energy island” began in 1996 at the COP 3 climate summit in Kyoto. During the conference, the Danish environment minister committed his country to cut its emissions 21% from current levels and select a community to model a complete shift from fossil dependency to renewable self-sufficiency within a decade. Three years after it won the competition to become that community, Samsø brought its first of 11 onshore wind turbines online.
Four hundred locals, or “Samsings”, chipped in to help cover the cost of that $1-million turbine, each of them buying five shares worth US$2,000 each.
Today, a total of 21 turbines, 10 of them offshore, provide 100% of the island’s electricity, with any excess sold back to the mainland grid. Speaking with a reporter from EarthRise in 2018, Hermansen said the island was exporting 80,000 megawatt-hours annually.
As for heating, where oil was once king on the island, local solar and biomass now predominate, providing 75% of Samsø’s heating needs. The shift away from diesel has seen heating bills drop 40%.
Burning 2.5 kilograms of straw produces the same amount of heat as burning one litre of oil, said Hermansen, and the island’s four district heating plants run entirely on straw biomass purchased from local farmers at the end of each harvest season. The mineral-rich ash left over from burning the straw later goes back to the farmers to nourish their fields.
“Samsø has already achieved its goal to reduce its annual carbon dioxide emissions close to zero, effectively becoming carbon neutral,” the UN climate secretariat said in a 2021 award citation. The island’s investments in renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles (EVs) have enabled it to reach “100% net annual balance of renewable energy.”
Samsø is now working to make itself 100% fossil fuel free by 2030, putting it 20 years ahead of Denmark’s national target. A literal flagship for this final hurdle will be a fully electric ferry—its current one runs on natural gas with electric propellers.
Going all in on renewables has also boosted the local economy. In a 2019 story on Samsø’s success, Reuters reported that the renewable energy push was “born from crisis,” as the community reeled from job loss—100 disappeared when a local slaughterhouse closed in 1997—and the consequent departure of its youth.
Adding to the sense of crisis that year was the US$8.24 million Samsø was paying out for a year’s worth of diesel.
The new energy economy has created jobs—from wind turbine technicians, to EV mechanics, to research and support staff at the Samsø Energy Academy which today welcomes some 5,000 “energy tourists” each year. It has lowered utility bills and brought profits to those who own shares in the wind turbines—everyone from Hermansen’s retired math teacher, to tradespeople, to local fruit farmers.
But even in its moment of crisis, Samsø had to talk things through to get to the point where the islanders felt what Hermansen called the “ownership feeling”: that the wind turbines and district heating plants “would be there because we want them to be there.”
Noting that “mental ownership can be as strong as physical ownership,” he described an outreach effort to persuade self-reliant islanders that there was “something in it for them.” Cheaper energy proved a decisive factor in persuading those suspicious of a collective heating system after years of “having the freedom to put oil in their own houses,” Hermansen said.
But rather than a story of self-interest, Samsø’s is one about a community’s faith that people can share common ground for many different reasons.
“The whole system is based on a collective buy-in,” said Hermansen. “We trust that someone will take care of our money in the best possible way to create a strong society that can deal with everything that is hitting us.”
That understanding is “the basic element,” he stressed. “Trust is paying 60% income tax, which we do and smile, because we know what it is for: free schools and hospitals.”
And Danish trust is not a passive thing. Hermansen cited his academy’s Guide for Local Pioneering Communities, an online public access resource whose landing page bears Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s observation: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
The same principle “applies to pioneer processes that lead to yet unknown territories, such as working with sustainable development,” the guide says.
Danish trust is an active thing, right down to how the chairs are arranged for a meeting on Samsø. “Our positioning of the chairs determines the functioning of society,” says the guide. When Samsings gather to discuss the final steps in freeing their island completely from fossil fuels, they meet in a circle, a shape that refuses hierarchies and demands participation.
How big that circle can be—whether Samsø’s project is scalable—remains to be seen, Hermansen said. The Samsø Energy Academy continues to work hard to give communities around the world some critical tools and advice towards making the Danish island’s happy ending their own.
But a fundamental obstacle to replicating Samsø’s experience elsewhere is that the island’s experience is sui generis, unique in quite material ways that are simply not replicable.
“Every project needs to have its own integrity, its own resources, its own baseline,” Hermansen told The Energy Mix. “You can’t just take this model and move it somewhere else—it wouldn’t work. It’s like biodiversity. You can’t just take an elephant and move it to Denmark.”
A project like Samsø’s also has to be flexible to account for a community’s own experience. “You have to make change over time before you can integrate these things because there might already be a lot of embedded investments,” he explained. “If you’ve just bought a new heating system, I can’t come to you and say you should buy another one.…You need to be patient, and there are a lot of different levels of action in it. So it’s not easy to scale the physical project.”
But he’s more optimistic about the mental part of the process. “It doesn’t matter if there’s 100,000 people in an area, or 1,000,” he said. “It is more or less the same method [of finding out] what makes people tick and connect and get interested in things.”
To get that interaction started, “bring some flowers and food and coffee and show interest,” he advised. “It’s not just information and information and information. It’s an exchange.”
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