A Renewable Island in a Fossil-Fueled World

SamsoCarbon neutral communities are an environmentalist's dream, the pie in the sky for your average eco-idealist, right?

And isn't it also true that reducing dependence on fossil fuel energy by converting to renewables like wind and solar power on a massive scale costs a hefty chunk up front?That the investment won't turn profitable for quite some time?

Well, no.

Samsø, a Danish island of just over 4,000 residents, has more or less smashed the old assumptions about practical energy solutions to pieces and emerged as an example of energy independence for the rest of the world. And the residents, called Samsingers, did it mostly on their own initiative with a little help from European grant money. For the short version of Samsø's story, check out this CBS clip on YouTube:

 

Now for the details:

In 1997, the Danish government sponsored a competition that would award the community with the best plan for switching from fossil fuel to renewable energy by 2008. As author Elizabeth Kolbert reports, winning the contest hardly started Samsø's renewable energy project with a bang:

"An engineer who didn't actually live on Samsø thought the island would make a good candidate. In consultation with Samsø's mayor, he drew up a plan and submitted it. When it was announced that Samsø had won, the general reaction among residents was puzzlement. "I had to listen twice before I believed it," one farmer told me." - The New Yorker

Eventually, in the absence of any contest prize money or tax incentives, Samsø started thinking about and investing in renewable energy. Either individually or through cooperative shares, residents invested in 11 onshore wind turbines that now generate all local electricity. Ten more turbines offshore produce even more power to offset Samsingers' car emissions, and the island makes money by exporting excess power to the mainland.

The turbines form just the largest, most visible part of Samsø's renewable operations. Biomass plants, for example, burn island-grown rye, wheat, and straw to provide heat and hot water. Combined with solar panels, the biomass heats 70 percent of the island's homes.

Through these measures Samsø has attained energy self-sufficiency in just 10 years, an incredible feat in a fossil-fueled world. According to Kolbert, though, its citizens don't view themselves as particularly remarkable:

"The residents of Samsø that I spoke to were clearly proud of their accomplishment. All the same, they insisted on their ordinariness. They were, they noted, not wealthy, nor were they especially well educated or idealistic. They weren't even terribly adventuresome. "We are a conservative farming community" is how one Samsinger put it. "We are only normal people," Tranberg told me. "We are not some special people." - The New Yorker

In fact, Samsø's accomplishments are largely the result of residents' understanding the practical and economic benefits of environmental improvements. Self-sufficient energy is good business for communities. Samsingers didn't invest in some hazy idea of the future of the Earth; they invested in tangible turbines that would bring income eight to 10 years down the road. And the investment actually paid off sooner, with an annual return of eight percent:

"A stronger-than-expected wind -- blowing 10-15 percent more force than expected into the blades -- cut the payback time and now Samsø Energy Academy says a share in a wind turbine generates about 500 crowns per year in income. . . .

There have been secondary benefits for islanders too: cement was needed to build the turbines' foundations, solar panels had to be installed and homeowners began to demand better insulation.

This gave blacksmiths and cement workers a reason to stay on the island at a time of economic slowdown: five families moved in to take on new 'renewable energy' jobs." - World Business Council for Sustainable Development

With its carbon-negative achievement, energy independence, and strong local economy, Samsø has achieved mythic stature as an eco-fantasy island, garnering visits from energy specialists all over the world. And the islanders aren't done yet.

Those cars? The ones offset by the offshore wind turbines? They will all someday run on biofuels. Many residents already grow rapeseed, in addition to other energy crops. Samsø Energy Academy reports future plans to produce biogas from pig farms, too.

Talk about renewable energy often centers on money, and the $700 billion bailout bill recently passed by Congress here in the U.S. includes tax incentive extensions for renewables like wind, geothermal, and closed-loop biomass. Whether we-and other countries-can learn from Samsø's stellar example remains to be seen, but this passage from Outside sums it up best:

"We can turn this around if we choose to, observers note. "This country is capable of sleeping for a long time," says former CIA chief James Woolsey, now an eco-minded energy-security specialist and vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, a Virginia-based international consulting firm. "But when it wakes up, things move pretty fast, and that's what we're going to be seeing in the next few years, with a growing coalition of tree huggers, do-gooders, cheap hawks, evangelicals, venture capitalists, and Willie Nelson. Renewable-energy technologies," Woolsey adds, "can come faster than people realize." - Outside

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David Johnson (anonymous)

Ummm, unless they built - in a carbon neutral way - all those wind turbines, biomass plants, etc., the island is *far* from "renewable." Shorn of the fossil-fuel powered world, they'd soon be a "renewable" island of non-working turbines, broken down biomass plants, and dead cars, hoping the island grows enough wood to keep them from freezing every winter without cutting down all the trees.

Basically, until a "renewable" society can build (or copy) *itself* - it's not renewable.

Written in October 2008

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  • Posted on Oct. 15, 2008. Listed in:

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