spearLittle did I know after being invited by Sustainia to participate in a climate symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, that I’d have the opportunity to visit Samso, the first island in the world to be completely powered by renewable energy.

At the climate event, I sat next to Soren Hermansen, director of Samso’s Energy Academy and mastermind behind the transformation of his hometown, as the group discussed new ways to communicate the seriousness of global warming in anticipation of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that will be released this October.

I shared with Hermansen my desire to visit Samso, as I wanted to see firsthand the progress the island has made since implementing their master plan more than 16 years ago. Within an hour, after several emails were exchanged, plans were set for me to spend one night and one day touring the island later that week.

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After a couple hour train ride from Copenhagen to Kalunborg, I boarded a ferry and arrived in Samso two hours later. I was met by Jesper Roug Kristensen, Samso Energy Academy’s business accounting and development manager. Already aware that Kristensen was a generous man, as he offered to host me at his family’s beautiful home, I was still pleasantly surprised by the incredible dinner and breakfast offered to me, and the following day’s itinerary that was arranged so I could meet the many people who have contributed to making Samso a world leader in sustainability.

The next day began with Kristensen providing an overview of Samso’s 10 year Renewable Energy Island Project while we ate homemade bread and jam, local cheese, fresh squeezed organic orange juice and of course espresso. The project began after Denmark’s Minister for the Environment—Svend Auken—returned from the Kyoto Climate Talks in Japan, enthusiastic about his country reducing its carbon emissions. In 1997, Auken announced a competition asking local communities or islands to present the most realistic and realizable plan for a 100 percent transition to self-sufficiency through renewable energy. Four islands and one peninsula participated in the competition. In October of that year, Samso was announced the winner and received funding by the Danish Energy Authority to formulate the details of their master plan.

Ten years later, Samso was generating more electricity from renewable energy than it consumed, mainly from 11 onshore and 10 offshore wind turbines, totaling 34 megawatts. Samso’s CO2 footprint is negative 12 tons per inhabitant, which includes the 10 offshore turbines that were built to compensate for carbon emissions from the transportation sector. The average CO2 footprint in Denmark is 10 tons per inhabitant. If the offshore turbines were not included, the Samso footprint would be 4.5 tons per inhabitant. Samso’s longterm goal is to be a fossil free island, phasing out oil, gas and coal by 2030.

After listening to Kristensen for nearly an hour, it was clear that the success of the island project was based on its bottom up approach. Nine of the 11 onshore wind turbines were bought by farmers, and the remaining two bought by more than 500 people who live on the island or have summer homes there. Each 1 megawatt wind turbine powers approximately 630 homes. 

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