The Road to Renewables

In 1997, Denmark’s Minister for Environment, Svend Auken, was inspired at the Kyoto climate talks.  He returned home with a passion to harness the collective efforts of local Danish communities in a way that promoted self-sufficiency in renewable energy.  Auken held a competition, which encouraged Danish islands to consider how their clean energy potential could be achieved with government funding and matching local investment.

The most compelling application came from Samso, a small island west of Copenhagen with a population of 4100.  This island of 22 villages, at the time run purely on imported oil and coal, was suddenly thrust into the global spotlight and, through a combination of local tenacity, investment and government funding, transitioned to 100% renewable power in just a decade.

At the heart of this energy revolution sit Samso’s community-owned wind turbines.  Onshore turbines with a generation capacity of 11MW offset 100% of the island’s electricity consumption.  Another 23MW of generation capacity from ten offshore turbines offsets Samso’s transport emissions. Most (75%) of the houses on the island use straw-burning boilers via district heating systems to heat water and homes, and the remainder use heat pumps and solar hot water systems.

The extraordinary result is a carbon-negative island and community.  The island now has a carbon footprint of negative 12 tonnes per person per year, a reduction of 140% since the 1990s (compare this to Australia’s footprint of 16.3 tonnes per person in 2013 and Denmark’s overall footprint of 6.8).  Not only is the island energy self- sufficient, they now export renewable energy to other regions of Denmark, which provides US$8million in annual revenue to local investors.

And Samso is not slowing down.  Highly motivated, knowledgeable and passionate locals are aiming for the island to be completely fossil-fuel free by 2030.  They plan to convert their ferry to biogas and, despite already offsetting their vehicle emissions via renewable energy generation, residents of Samso now own the highest number of electric cars per capita in Denmark.

Community Investment

Community investment has driven Samso’s success.  Through many public meetings, a positive response from the community was fostered and investment encouraged across the island.  While only 50 islanders attended the first discussion, interest snowballed as talk of valuable investments and new jobs spread around the villages.

As a result, twelve of the 21 onshore wind turbines are owned outright by farmers, who can potentially earn over US$4000 a day from exporting energy to other households and regions.  Another 500 island residents have contributed to shares in seven other local turbines.  Villagers also own one of the heating plants on the island.

Reaping the Benefits

Through local investors sharing their sustainable vision, a whole new industry has been created in a region with historically poor economic growth.  Like many rural communities, many young people from Samso have moved away and the community is struggling to maintain its agrarian roots in a globalising economy.

While many of these issues persist, taking a punt on community energy was a risk which quite literally paid off.  Becoming a sustainability champion has been a positive investment for locals and brought in new jobs and income from the operation of renewable energy, tourism and research.

As a world leader in community energy, Samso now not only attracts tourists, but also welcomes a plethora of media, scientists and politicians from around the world to its shores.  Their Energy Academy was built to explain how community power benefits locals and how Samso came to be so accomplished in sustainability.

A Model for the World

Samso’s journey from importing oil and gas to exporting renewable energy proves any community can achieve ambitious targets.  All that’s needed is determination and community collaboration – and a supportive government.  Samso sends a message to all communities to follow their lead and be pioneers of sustainability within their nation and beyond.

Article taken from ReNew Magazine 16 March 2017