Into wind power — trip to Danish green island Samsoe

The small Danish island of Samsoe with a population of 4,200 offers a refreshing alternative, amid the world’s dependence on fossil fuel that is mainly responsible for climate change and global warming.

Owning 150 cows and a 100-hectare farm on Samsoe’s east coast, Joergen Tranberg, with blue overalls and weather-beaten face, looks the typical, no-nonsense Danish dairy farmer.

In fact, he is an unusual mix of dairy farmer and energy entrepreneur.

"I have a wind turbine there," he said, gesturing at a tall windmill whose elegant blades turn gently in the breeze. "It’s a one-megawatt wind turbine. She is 10 years old now, and she produces 2.5 million kilowatts every year." In all, his investment in wind turbines generates 6.5 million kilowatts of electricity per year, which he sells to an energy company.

"I sell more electricity than I sell milk!" he said.

Wind energy have become an essential part of Samsoe’s identity as the world’s first island to run almost entirely on renewable energy. Drawing on the limitless bounty of the wind, as well as solar power, biomass, sustainable-growth wood sources and geothermal heat, Samsoe has shown how local efforts can help tackle global energy and environmental crises.

Samsoe’s residents, or ‘Samsingers’, traditionally relied on coal and oil to power their everyday life.

In 1997, the Ministry of Energy under Denmark’s previous left-leaning government, announced a competition to find which Danish area could present a plan to become self-sufficient using renewable energy, existing technologies and no additional funding. Blessed with a mild climate, good soils, a geographically central location in Denmark and abundant wind, Samsoe emerged as a surprise winner.

Soeren Hermansen, a teacher of environmental studies at the time, and current director of the information center, Samsoe Energy Academy, decided to try to convince his fellow Samsingers to adopt sustainable energy solutions.

"My interest was to change their attitude from ‘Not In My Back Yard’ to ‘In My Back Yard’," Hermansen recalled. "You can do that by giving people ownership."

"This led to many public meetings, which were aimed at convincing Samsingers on the need for renewable solutions, and involving them in the energy decisions that would affect their life. Despite many misgivings, especially about wind turbines being too noisy and spoiling the landscape, the project gained ground. Several farmers applied for a wind turbine license, while others decided to buy cooperative shares in two wind turbines. "It’s a beautiful windmill if you own a share in it," Hermansen said. "It sounds like money in the bank!"

In all, some 400 Samsingers bought wind farm shares, the cheapest costing DKK 3,000 (517 U.S. dollars).

Tranberg himself invested DKK 12 million (2.1 million dollars) although it was hard to find a bank to lend him the money. But the investments were worthwhile.

Over the past decade, the wind turbines have generated enough electricity — sold to utilities companies at an agreed price per kilowatt-hour — to cover the cost of loans and mortgages, and earn shareholders a monthly dividend.

"It’s a good thing to own the production unit," he says of the island’s wind turbines. "We can decide the price and we are our own energy producers: no one can take that away from us."

In all, 11 wind turbines of variable output stand on Samsoe, two of which are owned cooperatively. Another 10 giant wind turbines, producing 8 million kilowatts each, are anchored in the choppy waters off the island’s southern coast.

Together, they provide 100 percent of Samsoe’s electricity needs and more than compensate for carbon emissions generated by vehicles driven on the island and by the ferries that serve it, by exporting clean electricity to Danish mainland’s grid.

While just 13 percent of the island’s energy came from renewable sources in 1997, today that figure is 100 percent. While Denmark’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions are 10 tons per year, Samsoe’s is minus 3 tons, giving it a negative carbon footprint. These efforts have also helped Denmark achieve the target of generating 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

Islanders have since invested in numerous energy-saving solutions for their homes including solar water heaters, thickly insulated walls, thermal pumps and energy-efficient stoves.

Signe Marie Holst, for instance, was hesitant about buying a windmill share. "I participated in many of the meetings and tried to be part of this project," she recalled. "But I was really scared, as I had very little money."

A former ship-builder, she instead designed a central heating system for her own house, by connecting a wood-fired stove to water pipes that run under its floors. In winter, the water circulates warmth; and in summer, it carries heat away. The wood for the stove comes from trees in her garden. "It’s a very low-cost project," she adds.

Tranberg, however, uses electricity generated by wind-power to run his farm’s milk coolers. While they chill the 4.5 tons of milk his cows produce every day, the heat generated as a by-product is piped to his home for use in heating and hot water.

Bigger systems include a straw-fired, central heating plant, which is co-owned by 260 local homeowners and serves two local towns. Future plans include a biogas plant that will use organic waste from farms to produce methane gas for use in specially adapted cars and ferries, or in organic fertilizer.

Whatever the solution, Hermansen said the aim is to use proven technologies and a community-based ownership model.

"In future, energy will be more expensive," he continued. "If we’re smart here, we will speculate in investing in the future, saying energy may cost 30 percent or 40 percent more in 10 years’ time."

Investing in renewable projects today might seem risky, but will be increasingly profitable over time. "The real changes will come from us, not the utility companies," he predicts.

However, political intervention will be crucial, as governments have the financial capacity and regulatory framework to subsidize renewable energy projects and cut fossil fuel dependence.

Talking about Denmark’s own commitment, Hermansen said, "The progressive policy of the 1990s was better than it is today, as the present government believes in market growth only."

But that isn’t taking the wind power out of Samsoe’s sails and the prospects for a renewable energy future are bright.

As Holst says, "I notice some of the newcomers on Samsoe have moved here because of the energy island project, because they think this is the way for the future and they want to be part of it."

By Devapriyo Das,