Concerns about energy security may run high elsewhere, but the inhabitants of the windswept Danish island of Samso have achieved a decade-long target of self-sufficiency in renewable power.
It’s a challenge their government set the island in 1997 and which has been largely funded through local taxes and individual investments, in one of Europe’s wealthier countries — Denmark’s GDP per capita was more than $35,000 in 2006.
Now the islanders have shown that where there’s a wind, there’s a way — and in the process mounted a global showcase for one of Denmark’s prize export industries, which is home to the world’s largest wind-turbine maker, Vestas.
On Samso, which is home to just 4,000 people, wind turbines tower over green fields and rise from the choppy waters of the North Sea; rye, wheat and straw are used to heat the one-storey buildings and solar panels have sprouted on roof tiles.
“I think Samso has set an agenda for the climate issue and, alongside other projects, it has shown that this is possible,” said Soren Hermansen, director of the Samso Energy Academy and one of the project’s main drivers.
Without any construction subsidies, the islanders have invested 400 million Danish crowns ($83.4 million) — an average of more than $20,800 per citizen.
In Denmark’s geographical centre, Samso used to be best known for its early-season potatoes. Now 11 onshore wind turbines cover all local electricity demands and 70 per cent of the island’s homes are heated using biofuels or solar power.
While some homes have kept oil furnaces for heating, and cars are still common, the island has become carbon neutral by erecting 10 offshore wind turbines — in addition to the 11 on land — to offset the carbon emissions from cars and from the 30 per cent of homes still heated by oil.
“We even produce far more electricity than we need,” said Hermansen. The surplus is sold to the mainland.
To promote wind power, the Danish government subsidizes wind-energy production to the tune of about 20 to 50 per cent of the final cost of power to consumers.
The islanders’ efforts dovetail with European Union policy but have gone much further than official targets. The European Union has committed to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by a fifth by 2020 from 1990 levels, and to get one-fifth of all energy demand from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass.
Some islanders say the renewable project has been helped by developing it as a grassroots venture, rather than having targets and regulations imposed by a bureaucracy.
Many islanders own shares in the onshore wind turbines, an investment that they originally hoped would pay back after eight to 10 years. A stronger-than-expected wind — blowing with 10 to 15 per cent more force than expected into the blades — cut the payback time and now Samso Energy Academy says a share in a wind turbine generates a little more than $100 per year in income.
The project has attracted great overseas interest: ambassadors representing foreign countries in Denmark, on a recent trip to see Samso’s small towns driven by solar-panel farms and wind power, were impressed.
“What we’re trying to learn is how to do it — how to achieve that level of energy renewable self-sufficiency that Samso and the community here have achieved,” said Frederica Gregory, Canadian ambassador to Denmark.