Energy positive: how Denmark's Samsø island switched to zero carbon

The small island’s energy makeover took less than a decade and was spurred on by local commitment, providing a template for how regional Australia could transition to renewables

Anyone doubting the potential of renewable energy need look no further than the Danish island of Samsø. The 4,000-inhabitant island nestled in the Kattegat Sea has been energy-positive for the past decade, producing more energy from wind and biomass than it consumes.

Samsø’s transformation from a carbon-dependent importer of oil and coal-fuelled electricity to a paragon of renewables started in 1998. That year, the island won a competition sponsored by the Danish ministry of environment and energy that was looking for a showcase community – one that could prove the country’s freshly announced Kyoto target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 21% was, in fact, achievable.

The contest didn’t bring with it funds to bankroll the energy transition. But it did pay for the salary of one person tasked with making the island’s 10-year renewables master plan a reality.

That person was Søren Hermansen, a Samsø native vegetable farmer–turned–environmental teacher. Hermansen has wielded his pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves attitude to great effect over the past two decades, turning his own rural community into a green powerhouse, and evangelising to communities around the world that they, too, can make the transition.

“It was not an overnight process,” says Hermansen, who heads the Samsø Energy and Environment Organisation, and is chief executive of the Samsø Energy Academy. He is currently in Australia to speak at the Community Energy Congress in Melbourne.

In less than a decade, the transformation to carbon neutral was complete. By 2000, 11 one-megawatt (MW) wind turbines supplied the island’s 22 villages with enough energy to make it self-sufficient. An additional 10 offshore wind turbines were erected in 2002, generating 23MW of electricity to offset emissions from the island’s cars, buses, tractors and ferries that connect it to the mainland.

Electricity generation wasn’t the only goal. Between 2002 and 2005, three district heating systems were built. These now supply – via “miles of miles of piping” – three-quarters of the island’s houses with heating and hot water from centralised biomass boilers fuelled with locally grown straw. Meanwhile, houses outside of the heating districts have replaced old oil furnaces with solar collectors or biomass boilers of their own.

Samsø residents can now boast a carbon footprint of negative 12 tonnes per person per year, compared with a Danish average of 6.2 tonnes and 17 tonnes in Australia in 2015.

Søren Hermansen from Danish island of Samsø was tasked with making the island 100% carbon neutral - and he did so in less than a decade.
Søren Hermansen was tasked with making the Danish island of Samsø 100% carbon neutral – and he did so in less than a decade. Photograph: Samsø Tourism

Community buy-in was essential to making the zero-carbon master plan a reality, says Hermansen. And although there were sceptics in the beginning, the level of commitment by locals is evident in the unique patterns of ownership that have emerged. The wind turbines, for instance, are owned by a combination of private owners, investor groups, the municipal government and local cooperatives.

“We live in a small community, so it’s very important that we share the ownership,” says Hermansen. For the onshore wind turbines, the idea was that if you could see the turbine from your window, you could sign on as a co-investor. According to Hermansen, this approach quelled any simmering discontent (over the look of the turbines, say) that could have arisen if only some in the community stood to benefit.

Locals signed on to the tune of AU $2.5m, enough to purchase two turbines outright, with the remaining nine purchased by individuals. Two offshore turbines are also cooperatively owned, and the five owned by the municipality generate income the local government can reinvest in ongoing sustainability projects.

Everyone has taken the green ethos to heart. Locals own the highest number of electric cars per capita in Denmark, and are often champing at the bit to get involved in the next green project in the offing, says Hermansen.

That enthusiasm derives as much from a desire to be a self-sufficient, thriving rural community as it does from a desire to cut emissions. The constant hum of infrastructure projects has had an invigorating effect on the community, providing much-needed jobs for locals and a steady stream of eco-visitors looking to learn from the island’s achievements.

The island’s vision now is to be fossil fuel-free by 2030. Two years ago the municipality replaced its diesel-powered ferry with one that runs on gas, and the long-term plan is to convert the ferry to run off island-generated biofuel and wind-charged batteries. Other petrol-powered vehicles will also be phased out in favour of electric or biofuel alternatives.

It’s easy to think of Samsø’s energy makeover as a special case, driven by the grit and determination of sturdy Scandinavians living on a windswept former Viking outpost. But Hermansen insists that’s not the case. “You shouldn’t see Samsø as ‘the’ model,” he says. Far larger communities of tens of thousands of residents are also transitioning to renewable energy, for example. “Samsø is just a reflection of what is happening in Danish society in general. We are national policy in practice,” he says.

This hasn’t been his experience here in Australia. Local enthusiasm – in the New South Wales town of Armidale, or South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, for example – isn’t matched at the federal government level in Canberra. “I think there’s a disconnect between rural areas and the federal administration,” he says.

In his experience, federal-level support – through appropriate feed-in tariffs for renewable energy, and government incentives to adopt new technologies – is essential. “It is very important that the federal government gives it the right framework,” he says.

The Community Energy Congress takes place in Melbourne on 27 and 28 February.


Dyani Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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