The Samsoe story began in 1997 when the late Sven Auken, who was then Minister for Environment and Energy, challenged five Danish islands to reduce their use of fossil fuels and transition to clean energy. Samsoe won the contest and within a decade, using proven technologies, became independent of the mainland by relying almost entirely on renewable sources. By 2015, the island was carbon negative- an achievement both inspirational and impressive.
However, perhaps even more significant, Samsoe accomplished this feat largely with their own financing. Initially, the island received a grant of approximately $100,000 for a study to devise a project plan. Thereafter, the Energy Academy developed an investment plan, ownership structure and drew up a budget. They contacted banks and credit institutions and presented the plan to the community. Working from project to project, the community invested nearly $80 million in renewable energy technologies. The islanders own the wind turbines – one turbine may be owned by one or several people and they can compare the amount their turbine is producing against someone else’s.
But this is not a one-size fits all scenario – several different technologies are deployed across the island. There are both onshore and offshore wind turbines; district heating fired by biomass and solar; rooftop solar; and individual biomass burning furnaces or ovens. There are two ferries connecting the island of Samsoe to the island of Zealand and the peninsula of Jutland. One ferry is powered by Liquid Natural Gas and the other ferry will burn methane produced on the island when put in service this year. By 2030, half of all transportation on the island will either be biofuels or electric. In the meantime, the emissions from transport are offset by a surplus of offshore wind production.
One of the most important lessons from Samsoe is what Soeren Hermansen, the director of the Energy Academy and driving force behind the Renewable Energy Island project, calls “Commonity." Mr. Hermansen advises that when it comes to transitioning to a low carbon economy, communities should aim to think and act locally. Furthermore, these local projects can empower communities. For example, in the island of Samsoe, the local community is beginning to take back services, such as the ferry service, that had once been outsourced. The municipality now owns the ferry service and the ferries. As a consequence, the municipality is also becoming better equipped to deal with other local issues.
From being famous for its potatoes, the island is now a mecca for the world to come and study the transition to renewable energy. The Energy Academy brings many energy tourists to the island – approximately 5000 a year. Last year the King and Queen of the Netherlands visited along with the Danish Crown Prince Couple. Television stations from all over the world have covered the renewable energy success story on Samsoe. And in return, this activity creates new job opportunities for the islanders.
Before “nay-sayers” begin predicting that this cannot possibly work in the U.S., it can and has. Local communities in the U.S. (like Georgetown, Texas and Aspen, Colorado) are 100% renewable in terms of electricity. Other cities (San Diego, California for instance) have 100% renewable energy goals. Moreover, the Renewable Portfolio Standards and Renewable Energy Standards enacted in the states have largely met their goals well before the deadline. As in Samsoe, we need to think and act locally. While the U.S. is much bigger and more fragmented than Denmark, there are still lessons and inspiration we can take from the Danes – not the least of which is hope. Hope that we can leave fossil fuels behind and focus on a clean energy future.