ttierney July 21st, 2009
After a very hearty breakfast at the Sommer Pension, we rode our bikes a short distance to the Energiakademi of Samso, where we met Jan Jantzen, the Education Director of the academy. [Jan with Wooster swag] Jan greeted us outside, and explained that the Academy’s main building was designed on the model of a Viking long hall – i.e., one long, open room. The south-facing roof of the building is clad in photovoltaic solar panels, which provide much of the electricity used by the 6 full-time employees of the Academy. A short, but safe, distance from the main building is a hydrogen plant, which separates water into oxygen and hydrogen molecules, which are stored in hydrogen fuel cells. he Academy plans on building 4 additional “guest houses” that will allow the many visitors to the Academy to stay on the grounds.
Once inside, Jan explained the background behind Samso’s attempt to become a “carbon neutral” island. In the late 1990s the Danish government sponsored a contest, in which islands could submit plans for becoming self-sufficient in regard to energy consumption. A local farmer brought this contest to the attention of the citizens of Samso, and the effort was spearheaded by two individuals – Soren Hermanson and Age Johnsen . Through a series of public meetings, and the help of a consulting firm Plant Energy, the 4000+ citizens of Samso developed a 10-year plan to produce 100% of the island’s energy from renewable sources – wind, solar, and biomass power. Samso won the contest, began implementing the project in 1997, and by 2005 had reached its goal of energy self-sufficiency. Currently the island uses renewable sources to produce 140% of the energy used. According to Danish law, any surplus energy produced by alternative energy sources must be purchased by the national energy company at the current rate charged to consumers, making this experiment in energy self-sufficiency a highly profitable endeavor.
The most noticeable feature of Samso’s energy system is the 11 wind turbines that are spread across the island in groups of 5, 3, and 3. Each of these massive, slow-spinning turbines produces 1 megawatt of electricity. Less noticeable than the wind turbines are the 4 district heat plants that are scattered over the island. These heat plants use either straw or wood chips to heat water that is distributed to large groups of households, providing both heat and hot water. Some of the heat plants are supplemented by arrays of solar panels that heat water during the summer months, and each of the plants is backed up by an oil furnace in case the combination of biomass and solar power is insufficient during particular periods.
While the Samso energy experiment has been successful, the one “sore thumb” in the process was the failure to get the citizens of Samso to switch from traditional automobiles to electric cars. Once it became apparent that the project’s plan to transform the transportation sector was a failure, the citizens decided to build 10 offshore wind turbines off the southwest side of the island. Each of these turbines produces 2.3 megawatts of electricity, which more than compensates for the non-renewable energy consumed by the gasoline and diesel engines of the many cars and trucks on the island. This offshore “wind farm” is the first thing one sees from the ferry from Kalundborg, on the mainland, to the island’s ferry port at Kolby Kas.
In his morning presentation, Jan took great pains to dispel the media image of the Sams energy project as an idealistic, almost religious, movement. He emphasized that the overwhelming support of the citizens of Samso was based on a combination of environmental and economic motivations. Just prior to the Danish energy contest, Samso lost one of its primary employers, a slaughterhouse that employed over 100 people. The designers of the energy project presented it to the citizens as a form of economic development that could help keep residents of Samso on the island. The project designers worked hard to get local trades people involved in the project, training them to install highly efficient windows and doors in the older houses of the island, as well as geo-thermal heat pumps and solar panels on houses that were not part of the heating districts.
Jan also emphasized that the success of the project was largely attributable to the flexible approach taken in regard to funding the various forms of renewable energy production. Some of the land-based turbines are owned by individuals, while others are owned by private investors and investment groups. One of the land turbines is owned by the 1000+ individuals who bought stock in the turbine. The offshore turbines are also owned by an array of investors. The municipality of Samso invested in 5 of these offshore turbines, which now generate not just electricity, but a source of income that can be used for the benefit of all the island’s inhabitants.
Our visit to Samso is a particularly appropriate bookend to our field trip. The bottom-up approach to energy development taken on Samso stands in stark contrast to the experience of Iceland, where the top-down approach to hydroelectric plans has generated an organized environmental resistance movement.