Our Trip to Samsø
“The story began with Svend Auken, our brave Minister for the Environment,” says Soren Hermansen, who runs the Energy Academy on the Danish island of Samsø, an emerald comma in the Kattegat Sea. “When he returned from the United Nations climate change conference in 1997, he announced, ‘Now we need to start the green revolution in Denmark.’ That was very brave and very crazy.”
To get people excited about the idea, Auken set up a competition between municipalities for the best plan for going carbon-neutral in 10 years. When Samsø won, it became Denmark’s “renewable-energy island.” Hermansen, then a teacher, rock musician, and self-described rabble-rouser, took it upon himself to see that his native island lived up to its new name.
He brought consultants—and beer—to community meetings to try to convince his neighbors, many of them conservative farmers, to take up the cause. But the consultants weren’t getting through. So Hermansen sent them home. “Instead of telling people what they should do, I had to address the fear of change.” He told them that renewable technologies—wind turbines, solar arrays, biomass plants—would bring jobs and, better yet, money. Through subsidies, the government guaranteed a stable price for wind-generated power for 10 years, meaning investors could recoup their costs after seven or eight and start making a healthy profit.
What makes Samsø’s story so remarkable, however, isn’t this fast transformation from carbon polluter to renewable-energy producer. It’s how it happened: Samsø owes its success not to a collective environmental idealism, but to its residents’ brass-tacks business sense.
Listening to the low drone of his turbine now, he says, he hears the “music” of income.
The geothermal pipes bring warm water up all winter. It moves through a pump which, when hit with refrigerant, results in very hot water, which then moves through internal heating pipes to radiators in their home.
Two decades ago, most Samsingers heated their homes with oil hauled in on tankers. Then Hermansen and others got together and calculated that residents could save up to 50 percent on their heating bills if they replaced their furnaces with pumps that drew hot water, through underground pipes, from district heating plants.
Arne Jensen runs three plants fueled by straw bales, which he buys from local farmers. (A fourth plant burns wood chips.) “It takes two and a half kilos of this stuff to replace one kilo of oil,” he says. “This plant processes 1,600 tons a year. If they replaced that with oil, they would have to spend 20 million Danish krones [about $2.9 million], five times as much. That would be 20 million going out of the community. Instead, the money stays here.”
Samsø Golfklub, tucked in the island’s northeast corner, is a kind of microcosmic showcase of the community’s embrace of sustainability. The club’s carts and mowers are solar-powered, and golfers carry hand-held weeders so they can do spot maintenance as they play. Meanwhile, sheep graze the course’s organically grown greens, fertilizing them and keeping them tidy. They are an ancient Scandinavian breed that doesn’t require shearing. Instead, they shed their wool, and employees pick it off the course. At club parties, members dine on lamb from the herd.
And the course’s Greenkeeper Thomas Pihlkjaer in a solar-charged golf cart.
No pesticides are used. Members do some light housekeeping with weeding tools while on the links.
Wonderful to meet sheep. The memory kind of lingers on.
One of the girls.
With the recent coming to power of the Rasmussen government, Denmark has gone to the Right and is defunding much of the innovative work in the country . Investors like Mr. Tranberg will be loathe to stay in the game without government incentives.
To stay true to its title of “renewable-energy island,” however, Samsø may need more help from the government. The island’s turbines are getting old and in desperate need of maintenance, but with electricity prices so low, residents like Tranberg are hesitant to buy replacement parts. Without incentives such as subsidies, Kristensen says, “there is a real threat that if an old turbine breaks down, it will be torn down instead of repaired.”
But if the Samsø model can endure anywhere, it will be in places like Denmark, where tariffs on fossil fuels are driving investment in alternatives, says Jesper Kristensen, a development manager at the Energy Academy. “You can say that we have a good model here for the rest of the world.”
Here’s Jesper’s own heating arrangement: air-to-steam. It operates on the same principle as geo-thermal. This time it is the air from the outside that is pumped and given to a reaction with refrigerant. The moderate temperatures give him heat most of the winter (with a fireplace backup).
Here we visit the Nordby woodchip heating plant. The steam also rides through pipes going to hundreds of homes. The smoke from the woodchips is treated to greatly lessen the CO2 and particulates. The amount of CO2 released is comparable to the amount that would be natrually occurring in decomposition. Solar is the backup here. And also the Danish sheep to keep the grass trim around the panels.