The world's greenest island

How a group of gritty farmers turned Samsø, Denmark, into a premier global model of renewable energy.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Sheep graze near solar panels at a district heating plant on the island of Samsø, Denmark. The plant is run on 75 percent wood chips and 25 percent solar thermal collectors.

At the outset of an interview with a Dutch journalist, Søren Hermansen apologizes for being tired. He’s just returned to Denmark from a 21-day trip to Australia, where he gave 15 lectures and attended numerous other events. The reporter asks Mr. Hermansen how the Australians discovered him, a community leader on a Danish island half the size of Martha’s Vineyard that’s home to just 3,750 people and a few shaggy sheep. “I’m famous,” says Hermansen, adding that he isn’t boasting, it’s just a statement of fact.

Hermansen and his tiny island of Samsø have become recognized around the world for attaining energy independence. The island met this goal 10 years ago using a mix of wind, solar, and biomass, and now it’s working toward one of the utopian goals of environmentalists everywhere – eliminating all fossil fuels, by 2030. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘Samsø has turned into this little fairy tale about energy. We became the living proof of practical policy at work.’ – Søren Hermansen, a farmer-turned renewable energy crusader, standing in front of the Samsø Energy Academy

The story of how a relatively poor island where many of the locals considered environmentalism a bourgeois pastime became one of the planet’s purest examples of sustainability has captivated people from Sydney to Seattle who hope that their communities might follow a similar path. Today the Samsø Energy Academy, created to coordinate and promote the island’s energy work, receives more annual visitors than there are inhabitants on the island.

Hermansen, an unassuming man with a sturdy build and a ready grin, was listed as one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment” in 2008 alongside then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has also won some of the environmental community’s most prestigious honors, including the Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development. Twenty years into the island’s energy revolution, Hermansen has gone from an anonymous vegetable farmer to a celebrity at international environmental events – the George Clooney of green kilowatts. 

“Samsø has turned into this little fairy tale about energy,” says Hermansen, sitting in the academy building, which is itself a testament to sustainability, built from recyclable materials and outfitted with rainwater toilets. “We became the living proof of practical policy at work.”

What’s surprising is that Samsø residents have achieved all this fame without inventing anything new. They haven’t come up with some breakthrough idea. They haven’t conquered cold fusion or discovered a new form of energy. Instead, they’ve simply used existing green technologies and shown what a community can do when it rallies around a practical goal.

Perhaps more important, they have proved that renewable energy can be harnessed in an economical way. Indeed, many of the farmers on the island are now making good money from selling electric power generated by collectively owned windmills and wind turbines. For them, whirring blades and solar panels have become a bank vault.

“I would say [energy independence] can be done everywhere, but if it was easy to make this process [work], it would have already been done,” says Michael Kristensen, energy adviser and project manager at the Samsø Energy Academy. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Sheep graze near solar panels at a district heating plant on the island of Samsø, Denmark. The plant is run on 75 percent wood chips and 25 percent solar thermal collectors.

Before talking specifically about Samsø, it’s important to dispel a few myths about Denmark. Most outsiders view the Scandinavian nation as a paragon of progressivism.

It is, after all, a place where bicycles outnumber cars in the capital city of Copenhagen, more than 40 percent of electricity comes from wind, and by 2022 the nation plans to recycle 50 percent of all household waste. This is to say nothing of the country’s liberal social policies, such as giving new parents a total of 52 weeks of combined maternity and paternity leave.

Yet, for all its greenness, Denmark is not an ecological Eden. It has just 0.08 percent of the world’s population but produces 0.12 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. It has the world’s fourth-largest per capita ecological footprint, which means Danes require an area of land 2-1/2 times the size of their country to have enough natural resources – such as cropland, forests, fish stocks – to sustain their population. 

“Denmark is not an environmental Utopia. We’re still sinners in terms of emitting greenhouse gases and in terms of our ecological footprint,” says Lars Kjerulf Petersen, who studies society and the environment at Denmark’s Aarhus University. Still, he adds, “We are aware of the problems, so we are doing something.” 

Historically, Denmark’s energy policies paralleled those of other industrialized nations, until the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Back then more than 90 percent of Denmark’s energy came from petroleum, almost all of it imported. At the Copenhagen headquarters of Rambøll, a Danish international sustainability consulting firm, Søren Hansen shows a black-and-white photo of Denmark’s capital city choked with cars. Imagine James Dean’s Los Angeles with centuries-old buildings instead of a Hollywood sign. 

“We come from a background where we were exactly like the US,” says Mr. Hansen, a project director at Rambøll. “All Copenhagen, all Denmark, was planned for cars and run on fossil fuel. We were absolutely certain before 1972 that the energy supply was infinite.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jesper Roug watches the fire burn inside a furnace at a district heating plant, which islanders set up to wean residents off household oil heaters.

But the Arab oil embargo and the energy crisis in the 1970s shifted perceptions. Lines formed at gas stations. The government imposed strict regulations on energy use, such as not allowing cars on the road on Sundays and forcing people to turn off lights in buildings.

“It takes 10 years to build up an economy, but it takes one month to ruin it completely,” says Hansen. “The whole community of Denmark had a wake-up call.”

Fortuitously, Denmark discovered its own petroleum resources in the North Sea, which alleviated some pressure. But it also took additional steps to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. It rigorously began developing wind power and other renewables.

On the eve of the energy crisis, Samsø was no different than the rest of Denmark. What ultimately pulled residents on the island toward green power wasn’t the promise of renewable energy as much as the fear of something else – a nuclear power plant. 

Denmark was considering building its first nuclear station, and many Samsø residents, including Hermansen – who at the time was growing cucumbers, squash, and the island’s famous potatoes (Samsø Gold) – worried that local communities would lose control over their electrical supply to one centralized utility. So he and about 20 other families invested in a small wind turbine in the early 1980s.

In the years that followed, Hermansen studied environmentalism at college, got involved in organic farming, and often tinkered with his community’s wind turbine. 

“I was up there fixing it all the time because it was an old windmill and it broke down,” says Hermansen. “I’m a farmer so I knew how to fix it like any other machine.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Boats bob in the harbor of the Samsø village of Ballen.

Things might have gone on like this indefinitely had it not been for a 1997 competition sponsored by the Danish government. Following its Kyoto Protocol pledge to reduce greenhouse gases by 21 percent, Denmark launched a competition for one of its  communities to become energy independent within 10 years. Samsø won and was charged with implementing a 10-year plan to achieve this milestone. Victory did not come with any special funding and would require the island to apply for government support the same as any other municipality looking to go green. 

The plan they decided on relied on building a network of collectively controlled wind turbines both on land and offshore. Locals could buy shares in them and rather than unilaterally placing the turbines in the best spot to catch the wind, they also considered where the turbines would be least jarring aesthetically. 

Additionally, residents were encouraged to get rid of oil heaters and replace them with more-efficient heating from district plants. Although the heating plants still emit carbon pollutants, they burn wood chips and straw grown by farmers as opposed to oil imported from Saudi Arabia and other petrostates.

Hermansen was brought on as the first employee to work on the transition and sell the plan to the locals. “It was not because of my technical skills. It was more because I’m a good communicator,” he says. “I’m a little bit noisy in the community.”

If you spend any time with Hermansen, it’s not difficult to understand why he got the job. He has an easygoing mien that makes him feel like a longtime friend at first introduction. Within a few minutes, you’re tempted to hand over the password to your bank account.

When he travels abroad for conferences, he prefers to hang out with his driver – if the organizers provide him with a chauffeur – at his favorite local eatery rather than try something Zagat-rated. Though he works full time at the Energy Academy, he comes to the office dressed like someone proud to have never worn a suit to work. He has tight-cropped hair, wire-rim glasses, and Paul Newman blue eyes.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Green energy enthusiast Jørgen Tranberg feeds Highland cattle on his farm, which has wind turbines.

Hermansen began his sales effort by reaching out to skeptical farmers, relying on his natural instincts as a community organizer. If any of them resisted the plan, he visited them at home. As a former teacher on the island, he sometimes noticed a picture of their children and recognized their son or daughter. 

“Then I would call [the kids] and say, ‘Your old stubborn daddy! You need to talk to him because if you do this, if you improve the standard of your house, it will be easier to sell later on at a better price. You’ll inherit more money and your old man will have a better, warmer, higher quality life for the remainder of his life,’ ” says Hermansen. “ ‘What’s in it for me?’ was the driver, not the overall climate change aspect or that this whole island is going to be green and really nice.”

It didn’t hurt that Samsø is a tightknit community. The island has been inhabited since at least the Stone Age, and residents are proud of a tiny canal that the Vikings, who once used Samsø as a meeting place, dug across the narrowest stretch of land more than 1,200 years ago. Families extend back generations, and those who grew up here, like Hermansen, refer to themselves as “born islanders.”

Many of them live in houses with red-tile roofs, farm strawberry and potato fields, and raise pigs and hirsute sheep. Not a single traffic light exists on the island. 

While Samsø has seen a modest influx of outsiders seeking a more pastoral life, Hermansen was careful not to let newcomers play too big a role in the island’s green crusade. He wanted to avoid confirming the suspicions of locals, many of whom are independent and conservative, that sustainable energy was the exclusive purview of big-city liberals.

He was aided in his campaign by what at first seemed like a serious misfortune. A local slaughterhouse had just closed down, taking with it about 100 jobs, a massive loss for a small island. Hermansen, however, saw an opportunity. 

Rather than selling people on the long-term benefits of sustainability, such as increased property values or part-ownership of a windmill, he pitched the immediate availability of about 30 jobs, which included erecting green infrastructure and digging trenches for district heating pipes. 

By 2003, Samsø had built an offshore wind farm that for several months was the world’s largest and produced enough electricity that locals could begin exporting some to the mainland. By 2007, it had met its goal of energy independence.

Since then, a green ethos has permeated almost every aspect of life on the island. Residents have made their homes more energy efficient, installing thermal solar hot water systems and fuel-stingy appliances. The fairways of a local golf course are groomed with an electric lawnmower. Farmers produce organic cheese and butter.

In pursuit of the goal to become free of fossil fuel within 13 years, half of the vehicles owned by the Samsø municipality are electric. The island now has the most electric cars per capita in Denmark.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Samsø municipality's electric cars recharge at a solar-powered charging station under a 'roof' filled with solar panels.

To a certain extent, the mechanics of how Samsø became energy independent isn’t the most interesting part of this Danish “fairy tale.” It’s an island with strong winds and a small population. Putting up wind turbines made sense, solar was a natural outgrowth, and district heating was far more logical than using individual household oil heaters. 

What makes the island a place people travel around the world to study is how Hermansen and his colleagues convinced an independent collection of farmers who didn’t care much – if at all – about climate change to become green evangelists.

During a presentation to a Korean delegation that visited Samsø looking for inspiration, it’s clear from the visitors’ questions that the biggest impediment to sustainability is local residents. For example, one Korean asks if those on Samsø were worried about how wind turbines would look and sound. How were the residents persuaded that the wind blades wouldn’t be an eyesore and that going green was a good idea – was it with economic or environmental arguments? (The short answers: Yes and both.) 

Hermansen has found that talking about big issues like global warming does little to motivate people. Even if they accept that climate change is a problem, most don’t think that their individual actions can do much to affect the world’s thermometers. During a recent trip to Australia, Hermansen visited the nation’s coal country, where locals were skeptical that burning a bit of black rock Down Under could affect the climate in Singapore or Saskatchewan.

“If you focus on climate change, then it becomes really abstract,” he says. “I think most people are aware of it and fear climate change as they feared the cold war. We can’t really do anything about it, but we know about it and feel bad.”

Instead, he focuses on how small steps can provide direct benefits to people.

Take Jørgen Tranberg, for instance. Mr. Tranberg, a Samsø farmer, was one of the first investors in the island’s green revolution after it won the competition in 1997. He put up 6 million Danish krone ($870,000) for an early windmill. He says it paid for itself in less than seven years and since then he’s gone on to invest 30 million Danish krone ($4.34 million) in wind turbines throughout Europe.

He believes no one should invest in a windmill unless it is economically beneficial, but sees the larger virtues of renewables. “It’s good for my children and grandchildren,” he says. “They don’t need to ... ask Putin or the Middle East if they can get a cup of oil.”

In many ways, Samsø’s strategy in pushing energy independence reflects the Danish national ethos. Across the country, improving the environment tends to be talked about as a quality of life issue rather than a way to address an existential threat.  

When Copenhagen began cleaning up its polluted harbor, Lykke Leonardsen says it started as an environmental necessity but quickly received enthusiastic support from many of the locals who wanted to be able to swim in it again. Now in the summer the shores are packed with swimmers and sunbathers.

“The key thing about Copenhagen is that we are pursuing sustainability not as a goal in itself but in combination with the whole livability issue,” says Mr. Leonardsen, head of resilient and sustainable city solutions for the city of Copenhagen. 

“We’re not talking about sacrifices when it comes to sustainability but actually about how we can use the sustainability agenda to create a more attractive, more livable city for the citizens.”

Inevitably, the question that drives interest in a place like Samsø is, Can other communities replicate its success? When Hermansen meets visitors on the island or gives talks around the world, he says he’s often asked if the formula used here will work in a big city.

Of course not, he says. Cities have massive bureaucracies in place to manage complicated systems such as the power grid, waste management, and water. It would be unreasonable to think that officials can easily change and erect a wind turbine on every street corner or use rainwater to flush every toilet.

But even if some of the projects can’t be copied, the processes that lead to a greener lifestyle can. 

“You could have a city talk about how can we make rooftop solar on this block and urban gardening on that one,” he says. “This is already happening in many cities.”

If the story of Samsø is a fairy tale like something from the annals of beloved Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, the clearest moral may be that it isn’t about wind turbines or straw-burning heating plants. It’s about the spirit behind them.

Or, as the king of clean kilowatts himself, puts it: 

“I don’t wake up every morning and think how do I save a polar bear today, and most people don’t,” says Hermansen. “The drive for me is still to engage the community and keep this community alive, meaning we need kids in the schools, we need active people in the process, keeping the local culture and events going.” 

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