In the past 10 years, one Danish island has cut its carbon footprint by a staggering 140%. Now, with a simple grid of windfarms, solar panels and sheep, it’s selling power to the mainland and taking calls from Shell.
Via The Guardian/New Yorker
The Danish island of Samso is entirely self sufficient, these huge turbines are off the island’s Southern tip.
Samso has recently undergone a remarkable transformation, one that has given it an unexpected global importance and international technological standing. Although members of a tightly knit, deeply conservative community, Samsingers – have launched a renewable-energy revolution on this windswept scrap of Scandinavia. Solar, biomass, wind and wood-chip power generators have sprouted up across the island, while traditional fossil-fuel plants have been closed and dismantled. Nor was it hard to bring about these changes. Nevertheless, the consequences have been dramatic.
Ten years ago, islanders drew nearly all their energy from oil and petrol brought in by tankers and from coal-powered electricity transmitted to the island through a mainland cable link. Today that traffic in energy has been reversed. Samsingers now export millions of kilowatt hours of electricity from renewable energy sources to the rest of Denmark. In doing so, islanders have cut their carbon footprint by a staggering 140 per cent. And what Samso can do today, the rest of the world can achieve in the near future, it is claimed.
Last year, carbon dioxide reached a record figure of 384 parts per million – a rise of around 35 per cent on levels that existed before the Industrial Revolution. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that such changes could soon have a dramatic impact on the world’s weather patterns. Already, Arctic sea ice is dwindling alarmingly and scientists say the world has only a few years left to make serious carbon-output cuts before irreversible, devastating climate change ensues. Samso suggests one route for avoiding such a fate.
Everywhere you travel on the island you see signs of change. There are dozens of wind turbines of various sizes dotted across the landscape, houses have solar-panelled roofs, while a long line of giant turbines off the island’s southern tip swirl in the wind. Towns are linked to district heating systems that pump hot water to homes. These are either powered by rows of solar panels covering entire fields, or by generators which burn straw from local farms, or timber chips cut from the island’s woods.
None of these enterprises has been imposed by outsiders or been funded by major energy companies. Each plant is owned either by a collective of local people or by an individual islander. The Samso revolution has been an exercise in self-determination – a process in which islanders have decided to demonstrate what can be done to alleviate climate damage while still maintaining a comfortable lifestyle.
The people of Samso were once the producers of more than 45,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – about 11 tonnes a head. Through projects like these, they have cut that figure to -15,000. (That strange minus figure comes from the fact that Samsingers export their excess wind power to mainland Denmark, where it replaces electricity that would otherwise be generated using coal or gas.) It is a remarkable transformation, wrought mainly by Samsingers themselves, albeit with the aid of some national and European Union funds and some generous, guaranteed fixed prices that Denmark provides for wind-derived electricity. The latter ensures turbines pay for themselves over a six- or seven-year period. After that, owners can expect to rake in some tidy profits.
Outside the town of Nordby, you can see its district heating project. A field has been covered with solar panels mounted to face the sun. Cold water is pumped in at one end to emerge, even on a gloomy day, as seriously hot water – around 70C – which is then piped to local houses for heating and washing. On particularly dark, sunless days, the plant switches mode: wood chips are scooped by robot crane into a furnace which heats the plant’s water instead. The entire system is completely automated. ‘There are some living creatures involved, however, a flock of sheep is sent into the field every few days to nibble the grass before it grows long enough to prevent the sun’s rays hitting the panels.’