Samsø – self-sufficiency through sustainable energy

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Ivar Smits in front of Energy Academy

We make a detour to visit Samsø. We read about this fascinating Danish island years ago, and in fact it is one of the reasons for the theme of ‘sustainability’ in our journey. People from around the world are interested in how Samsø generates its own sustainable energy.

In total Samsø produces around 130 percent of its total annual electricity consumption using sustainable wind power. Ivar Smits Ivar Smits Skipper

The island is a source of global inspiration, showing the heights that sustainability can reach. It proves the power of a positive example. Like Samsø, it is our ambition to demonstrate smart solutions and inspire others to improve their sustainability efforts.

A little smaller than the Dutch island of Texel, Samsø has a permanent population of around four thousand. It is a popular holiday destination in Denmark: in the summer thousands of tourists flock to its beaches, its rolling landscape and its picturesque villages. After farming, tourism is the principal source of income for the islanders. Despite that, they chose to install eleven unsightly wind turbines on land and another ten offshore. We are curious about how that decision came about.

Sharing the decision and the profits

It is a windy island, as we discover without even having left the harbour. A Danish sailboat with a rather inexperienced skipper crashes into our side. We hear a loud ‘BOOM’ inside. Luckily our strong steel protects us and our boat does not suffer any damage. Our new neighbour is not so lucky: his railing is bent and his bow light has come off. He is still in a daze as we help him to moor and hand him the remains of his light. Clearly, wind power was a logical choice for the islanders. So what convinced them to build wind turbines in their holiday paradise?

Søren Hermansen, the initiator behind the plan, explains to us what happened. Every year his Energy Academy draws some five thousand visitors, who come to find out about the island’s energy revolution. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands were among last year’s visitors. ‘We talked to many of the islanders, very many of them,’ Søren explains. Initially they resisted the idea, since the local community did not want any wind turbines on the island and saw no benefits in having them. This was resolved by sharing the wind power proceeds with everyone – not just in the form of the kWh generated, but also financially.

Shares in green electricity

To ensure that the threshold for participation remained low, shares were issued at 1,000 kroner (around €130). A flexible arrangement was set up under which the participants did not have to pay for their shares immediately. Instead, they could pay in instalments, using the yield from ‘their’ energy. Given these terms, almost everyone signed up. Next, the islanders decided in careful consultation where the wind turbines should be built.

The initiative proved a tremendous success, and the islanders began to trust the partnership – so much so, in fact, that they moved on to the next phase: building another ten wind turbines offshore. This time municipal funds were also invested. While the offshore turbines are more expensive, they are also larger: each of them generates 2.3MW, to be precise. In total Samsø now produces around 130 percent of its total annual electricity consumption using sustainable wind power. This is clearly more than it needs, and in the long term the difference could be used to power a fleet of electric cars.

Heat from the land and the sun

The next step was to adopt sustainable methods to generate heat. Four small power stations have been built at various locations across the island to generate heat. We visit them by bicycle. The blustery wind makes us work hard on our rented bikes. The power stations, situated on the outskirts of the villages, are so unobtrusive that we almost cycle right past them. One power station generates heat from solar energy and woodchips, while the other three incinerate straw and biomass. Previously the farmers used to simply burn this agricultural waste, as it had no value. Now they sell it as a sustainable energy source for heating homes.

Shares in these power stations were also sold to the islanders. Søren visited people’s homes to explain that it would be better to get rid of their good old oil stoves. Not only would this lead to a cleaner future and eliminate the dependency on imported oil, if everyone joined in it would also yield financial benefits. This plan was also a huge success. Many islanders who live too far away from the power stations in fact decided to build their own sustainable heat supplies: heat pumps and pellet stoves, for example.

Samsø 2.0

Despite these success stories, as we explore the island we still see quite a few cars on the roads, with old-fashioned petrol and diesel engines. We ask Søren about them. He laughs, and confirms what we already suspected: the islanders love their fossil-fuel cars. However, plans are underway to introduce sustainable transport. By 2030 Samsø hopes to be entirely fossil-free. Electric transportation is becoming more popular, though not as fast as the director of the Energy Academy had hoped. The vehicles of the postal office and the municipality are powered by electricity, and an eighty-metre carport has been built next to the town hall, with solar panels on the roof for charging cars. Distances on the island are short, making it perfect for electric transport, yet for many people it is too expensive just now. Probably – hopefully – matters will turn around as automotive technology improves and prices drop.

Plans are also being made for sustainable ferries to the mainland. In the future, a ferryboat that is now powered by LNG (liquefied natural gas) might use a combination of locally produced biogas and electricity. It can charge its batteries at night using wind power.

Just do it!

So what can we learn from Samsø? Søren is emphatic: you just have to do it. Do not wait for the government or someone else to take the first step. Create a community where people meet, inspire each other and share the work. A great deal can be achieved if people work together and everyone helps. As Samsø proves, you do not need to worry that tourism will suffer, and in fact sustainable energy is profitable.

We are in a good mood as we leave the Energy Academy. The knowledge centre has inspired us and validated our purpose: to show that it is possible to improve sustainability. If enough people are convinced by positive examples, this may lead to both increased sustainability and financial gains. What are we waiting for? Let’s get started!

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