Into wind -- trip to Danish green island Samsoe

19:51, August 19, 2010      

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The small Danish island of Samsoe with a population of 4,200 offers a refreshing alternative, amid the world's dependence on fossil fuel that is mainly responsible for climate change and global warming.

Owning 150 cows and a 100-hectare farm on Samsoe's east coast, Joergen Tranberg, with blue overalls and weather-beaten face, looks the typical, no-nonsense Danish dairy farmer.

In fact, he is an unusual mix of dairy farmer and energy entrepreneur.

"I have a wind turbine there," he said, gesturing at a tall windmill whose elegant blades turn gently in the breeze. "It's a one-megawatt wind turbine. She is 10 years old now, and she produces 2.5 million kilowatts every year." In all, his investment in windmills generates 6.5 million kilowatts of electricity per year, which he sells to an energy company.

"I sell more electricity than I sell milk!" he said.

Windmills have become an essential part of Samsoe's identity as the world's first island to run almost entirely on renewable energy. Drawing on the limitless bounty of the wind, as well as solar power, biomass, sustainable-growth wood sources and geothermal heat, Samsoe has shown how local efforts can help tackle global energy and environmental crises.


Samsoe's residents, or 'Samsingers', traditionally relied on coal and oil to power their everyday life.

In 1997, the Ministry of Energy under Denmark's previous left-leaning government, announced a competition to find which Danish area could present a plan to become self-sufficient using renewable energy, existing technologies and no additional funding. Blessed with a mild climate, good soils, a geographically central location in Denmark and abundant wind, Samsoe emerged as a surprise winner.

Soeren Hermansen, a teacher of environmental studies at the time, and current director of the information center, Samsoe Energy Academy, decided to try to convince his fellow Samsingers to adopt sustainable energy solutions.

"My interest was to change their attitude from 'Not In My Back Yard' to 'In My Back Yard'," Hermansen recalled. "You can do that by giving people ownership."

"This led to many public meetings, which were aimed at convincing Samsingers on the need for renewable solutions, and involving them in the energy decisions that would affect their life. Despite many misgivings, especially about windmills being too noisy and spoiling the landscape, the project gained ground. Several farmers applied for a wind turbine license, while others decided to buy cooperative shares in two windmills. "It's a beautiful windmill if you own a share in it," Hermansen said. "It sounds like money in the bank!"


In all, some 400 Samsingers bought windmill shares, the cheapest costing DKK 3,000 (517 U.S. dollars).

Tranberg himself invested DKK 12 million (2.1 million dollars) although it was hard to find a bank to lend him the money. But the investments were worthwhile.

Over the past decade, the windmills have generated enough electricity -- sold to utilities companies at an agreed price per kilowatt-hour -- to cover the cost of loans and mortgages, and earn shareholders a monthly dividend.

"It's a good thing to own the production unit," he says of the island's windmills. "We can decide the price and we are our own energy producers: no one can take that away from us."

In all, 11 windmills of variable output stand on Samsoe, two of which are owned cooperatively. Another 10 giant windmills, producing 8 million kilowatts each, are anchored in the choppy waters off the island's southern coast.

Together, they provide 100 percent of Samsoe's electricity needs and more than compensate for carbon emissions generated by vehicles driven on the island and by the ferries that serve it, by exporting clean electricity to Danish mainland's grid.

While just 13 percent of the island's energy came from renewable sources in 1997, today that figure is 100 percent. While Denmark's per capita carbon dioxide emissions are 10 tons per year, Samsoe's is minus 3 tons, giving it a negative carbon footprint. These efforts have also helped Denmark achieve the target of generating 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.
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