Wind power reenergizes Danish island of SamsøWind energy revolutionized Samsø, transforming it from a coal addict into one of the first modern societies powered entirely by renewables.
Descendents of Vikings they may be, but Samsø islanders are no eco-warriors. Yet this 4000-strong farming community has become a Mecca for environmentalists searching for inspiration.
That is because the ‘Samsingers’ went carbon negative: in effect they stopped emitting greenhouse gases. They stopped burning fossil fuels to generate electricity.
Instead, they harnessed the winds whipping the island sitting in the frigid waters between the Baltic and North Seas.
“The wind power, especially the offshore wind, is the main reason why the overall goal has been met,” says Per Alex Sørensen, an energy consultant with PlanEnergi, the Danish firm that drafted Samsø’s revolutionary energy plan.
That goal was set by the Danish government in 1997. It launched a competition for the best plan to make a community 100 percent energy self-sufficient using renewable energies only, without special subsidies beyond the already existing support for renewables.
Samsø was the unlikely winner. It was almost entirely dependent on coal-fired power from the mainland, as well as imported heating oil and gasoline. Samsingers emitted 11 tons of CO2 per capita annually. The goal was to reduce that to zero within ten years.
They did it in six.
In fact, they exceeded their goal. Samsø exports surplus wind energy which cuts greenhouse gases on the mainland by 15,000 tons a year. Each Samsinger now emits minus 4 tons of CO2 every year. They have also eliminated emissions of nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide.
So how did they do it? Wind was always the key. With average wind speeds ranging from 6.5 to 7.5 meters per second, Samsø is ideal for wind power.
Onshore wind turbines would meet the island’s electricity needs. But there remained the problem of transport. Gasoline and diesel could not be easily replaced like coal-fired electricity or heating oil. There were no alternatives for Samsø’s cars, trucks and boats.
So PlanEnergi proposed an offshore wind farm to generate enough surplus clean electricity to sell back to the mainland and thereby offset the emissions from vehicle fuels.
But for three years nothing much happened. The first public meetings to discuss the plan attracted pitifully small numbers. ‘What will renewable energy do for us?’ Samsingers asked. ‘Make you money’, answered the planners.
Show Me the Money
They offered Samsingers shares in the turbines, so the more the wind blew, the more money they made. This was a throwback to Denmark in the early 1980s, before the big energy companies took over wind power.
“It was the key to changing the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ effect,” says Søren Hermansen, director of the Samsø Energy Academy and a former farmer. “If people see utilities erecting turbines and are not offered ownership, they only see the disadvantages.”
What made the offer even more attractive was generous guaranteed ten-year feed-in tariffs for wind power that the Danish government introduced in the 1990s. “Relatively high energy prices means it pays for people to buy shares in wind turbines and convert from fossil fuel heating,” adds Hermansen.
Now, between 10 and 15 percent of the population owns shares in their primary source of energy, and they make a return on investment of between 6 and 8 percent, he says.
There are 11 onshore wind turbines on Samsø, spread discretely over 4 different sites and providing 11 Megawatts of capacity. Each turbine can power 630 houses. Samsø negotiated a special dispensation that allowed taller turbines meaning fewer were needed. Offshore there are 10 even larger turbines with a capacity of 23 Megawatts.
The offshore turbines are more productive: they produce 3500 Megawatt hours of electricity per Megawatt of capacity while the land-based turbines generate a third less power per Megawatt.
Thanks to the turbines the original objectives to replace dirty electricity and offset vehicle emissions have been “met in full”, according to the Samsø Energy Academy ten-year assessment.
This success has also encouraged Samsingers to back other elements of the energy plan, such as district heating systems running on straw and wood chips from Samsø farms for example.
The next step is improving electricity storage and distribution. The Samsingers are testing whether surplus wind electricity can be diverted to power heat pumps or even charge electric vehicles.
Think locally, act locally
Could the Samsø experiment be replicated elsewhere? Is it affordable?
Yes, say Sørensen and Hermansen, but you need the feed-in tariffs and mixed ownership, a rural setting, and the right physical and legal infrastructure.
“In Denmark utilities are obliged to buy from wind turbines so they have to extend grid connections to those turbines,” Hermansen explains. “Without that law, it can be a problem. Politicians need to make up their minds. Energy companies have too much power, which is bad for development.”
Samsø’s wind installations have cost 42 million euros in total: that’s about 13,000 euros per Samsinger, with government subsidies of about 1000 euros per head.
Based on these costs, the Samsø Energy Academy estimates that for the whole of Denmark to go to 100 percent renewable energy would cost about 89 billion euros, which would be paid off in 11 years.
No country will go 100 percent renewables anytime soon, but Samsø shows that at the local level extraordinary things are possible—Hermansen’s motto is “think locally, act locally”. Sørensen says the message of the Samsø revolution is crystal clear: “Do what you can do and do it now.”