Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Danish island’s victory over carbon emissions…

Samsø’s land-based turbines produce 26 million kilowatt-hours a year, enough to meet the island’s electricity needs
(Photo by Joachim Ladefoged)

Williamstown-based writer Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a very interesting profile of the Danish island of Samsø, which cut its fossil fuel use in half and became an exporter of electricity by 2003. After residents formed energy cooperatives, organized seminars on wind power, and replaced their furnaces with heat pumps, by 2005 the island was producing more energy from renewable sources than it was using.

Kolbert is the author of an excellent series of articles for the New Yorker about climate change, which was published as Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Her latest article, The Island in the Wind: A Danish Community’s Victory over Carbon Emissions, is about an island in the North Sea about the size of Nantucket.

She points out that Samsø is “the site of an unlikely social movement” that began in the late 1990s, when the island’s 4,300 inhabitants had “a conventional attitude toward energy.” Residents are proud of their accomplishment, yet they insist on their ordinariness since they are not wealthy, especially well educated, or idealistic.

And yet, Samsø transformed its energy systems in a single decade. “Its experience suggests how the carbon problem, as huge as it is, could be dealt with, if we were willing to try,” writes Kolbert.

When the Ministry of Environment and Energy sponsored a renewable energy contest in 1997, an engineer thought the island would make a good candidate. He drew up a plan in consultation with the mayor, and the general reaction among residents was puzzlement when Samsø won. One of the few people on the island to think the project was worth pursuing was Søren Hermansen, recounts Kolbert.

He had to begin by enlisting the support of the island’s opinion leaders. “This is where the hard work starts, convincing the first movers to be active,” he said. Eventually, the social dynamic that stalled the project began to work in its favor, and as more people got involved, that prompted others to do so, explains Kolbert.

“People on Samsø started thinking about energy,” states one farmer who heats his house with solar hot water and a straw burning furnace. “It’s exciting to be a part of this,” says an electrician who installed a small turbine in his backyard.

Samsø has 11 land-based turbines and 12 additional micro-turbines that produce 26 million kilowatt hours a year, which is enough to meet the island’s electricity needs. Ten larger offshore turbines each generate eight million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, and they were erected to compensate for Samsø’s use of fossil fuels in vehicles and ferries.

Each land-based turbine cost the equivalent of $850,000 and each offshore turbine cost around $3 million. Some of the turbines were erected by a single investor and others were purchased collectively. At least 450 residents own shares in the onshore turbines, and an equal number own shares in those offshore. Shareholders receive annual dividend checks based on the price of electricity and how much their turbine has generated, explains Kolbert, and the turbines are expected to repay a shareholder’s investment in eight years.