Samsø is a small island in the center of Denmark. To get to the island, it’s a little over an hour drive from Copenhagen to Kalundborg and then another two hours on a ferry
until you reach the Samsø shore. With a population of roughly 4300 inhabitants in an area of 114 km² ( a little over 70 miles), Samsø might seem like any other small island around the world. Pastoral, idyllic, agrarian, Samsø is known across Denmark for its harvest of new and gourmet potatoes. But the Samsings and their island are unique for another reason; Samsø is a renewable energy island with a carbon negative footprint.
In 1997, Samsø won a Danish government competition to become a renewable energy community. In 10 years time, the residents had transformed their fossil-fuel based energy economy into a citizen-powered renewable energy economy. Samsø incorporates energy efficiency measures along with solar, biomass district heating, and wind to create its energy portfolio. Including the 10 offshore wind turbines, Samsø generates more energy from renewables than it uses and is able to export the surplus back to the Danish mainland. This has led to a 140% decrease in Samsø’s CO2 emissions.
Being a small island, it would have been easy to the locals to think that transforming their energy grid was a project that was just too big. In fact, many citizens thought that in the beginning. But through a series of local meeting forums, the Islanders came to recognize that this kind of transformation meant a more vibrant local economy and jobs, independent of subsidies. They would become owners in their energy future instead of customers. Energy democracy and independence were important selling points to the Samsings.
I first discovered Samsø from a children’s book. I read the story, Energy Island: How one community harnessed the wind and changed their world, to a group of my elementary students in my after-school eco-club class. The story really resonated with the kids. They liked that despite being too small, Samsø joined together as a community, rose to the occasion and transformed their energy grid. “If Samsø could do that, we can too,” the kids agreed. This concept, so easily understood by my eco-club kids, hasn’t resonated with the same clarity among adults, especially in places like the USA where we spend a lot of time arguing our point and maybe not as much time listening to what the other person has to say.
I visited the Samso Energy Academy in August and was fortunate enough to spend some time with it’s charismatic director, Søren Hermansen. Shortly after, Hermansen took the Samsings’ story on the road on a 3-week tour of speaking engagements across America. Fortunately, my town of Santa Fe was one of his stops. Søren has a new e-book just released in English, Commonities = commons + communities. The book extols the shared ownership of the commons along with the wisdom of community. Combining those two concepts, front and center, will help us create a path to a better, more equitable energy future.
“In Santa Fe,” one of our sustainability commissioners mentioned to Søren, “we are known as the City Different. People like being different and creating their own solutions.” “That’s part of the problem,” he responded. “You need to be the City United not the City Different.” We all laughed. But, that seems to me to be our best path to redemption.