It may seem strange to compare a small island in the channel between Jutland and Zealand, in the middle of Denmark, with my home county here in West Virginia. If you traveled to Samsø, however, you would recognize a lot of similarities. The people are friendly. The land is the most important feature you see, not buildings or highways. Both communities share a measure of isolation caused by physical barriers. Because both communities are rural, they face the same population trends – out-migration of young people and an aging population.
In the late 1990s, Samsø lost it’s biggest businesses – a large hog operation and a commercial slaughterhouse. In the last twenty years, Calhoun County has lost the few light manufacturing businesses that appeared in the 1960s after the long decline of the local oil and gas industry. Samsø has a significant summer tourism industry that Calhoun County lacks, but tourism is significant in other parts of rural West Virginia. The largest employers in the local economies of both Calhoun County and Samsø are education and health care.
There are lots of differences between the two places, but one big difference stands out. Samsø has visionary leadership. And that leadership relied on the local people in the local community, not handouts from distant businesses and government officials. As Søren Hermansen, the director of Samsø’s ten year energy transformation puts it on the title page of the project’s final report: “Think local – act local.”
If you read through the report, you will see time and again how the people of Samsø built their new renewable power systems themselves. When they did engage outside help, it was always on their own terms. They made mistakes, they overestimated what they could do, but they always moved forward. When the new district heating systems threatened to throw a lot of local oil heat installers out of business, Samsø citizens worked out a deal so that a regional vocational school would bring courses to the island to retrain local technicians to work on new heating systems, energy efficiency improvements and skills needed for new renewable power installations. The report also details the door-to-door efforts to help everyone on the island save money by reducing their energy use. Particular care was given to the needs and abilities of older residents.
The municipal government of Samsø had started the ten year project by entering the competition, to be selected by the Danish government, to become the first area in Denmark to produce more renewable power than it consumed. Samsø won that competition in 1996. The Danish government specified that the winning municipality was required to have active involvement from the entire community, and that it use only readily available, established technology.
The solution for Samsø was relatively simple, because of the island’s location in the middle of a large body of water. The people of Samsø installed enough wind generation capacity to offset all of their remaining fossil fuel use. They also converted 65% of their heating to biomass fuel and solar power. But they did most of it themselves. About a third of their turbines is owned by power companies, another third by the municipal government, and the other third is owned by residents of the island as private investors.
Local financing was possible because local banks were innovative and serious about building the local economy. The banks were willing to finance projects because Denmark had a strong and consistent policy of feed in tariffs for new wind power projects. Both the investors and the banks could be assured that their projects would pay for themselves in less than ten years. In fact, most of the turbines were paid off in about seven years. Now, about 60% of the power produced on the island is exported, providing significant income for people on the island and their local government.
The revenue from the island’s wind power funded the construction of the Energy Academy on Samsø in 2006. Here’s how the final report describes the purpose of the Academy:
The RE[renewable energy]-island project is a socioeconomic development project constructed as an exhibit for the use of renewable energy in a local community. As a direct consequence of these actions, the general objective to establish a central home for the energy island project took hold. The Energy Academy is a community hall for energy concerns, a meeting place for energy and local development.
All of the construction work on the building was done by local contractors. The building incorporates computer controlled smart technologies and super insulation to maintain comfortable temperatures in the interior space. The roof also incorporates integrated PV panels. The advanced design provided training opportunities for local builders on these technologies. As you can see, the building is beautiful. The interior is very functional as well as being very comfortable and welcoming.