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Samso: World’s First 100% Renewable Energy-Powered Island Is a Beacon for Sustainable Communities
Little did I know after being invited by Sustainia to participate in a climate symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, that I'd have the opportunity to visit Samso, the first island in the world to be completely powered by renewable energy.
At the climate event, I sat next to Soren Hermansen, director of Samso's Energy Academy and mastermind behind the transformation of his hometown, as the group discussed new ways to communicate the seriousness of global warming in anticipation of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that will be released this October.
I shared with Hermansen my desire to visit Samso, as I wanted to see firsthand the progress the island has made since implementing their master plan more than 16 years ago. Within an hour, after several emails were exchanged, plans were set for me to spend one night and one day touring the island later that week.
After a couple hour train ride from Copenhagen to Kalunborg, I boarded a ferry and arrived in Samso two hours later. I was met by Jesper Roug Kristensen, Samso Energy Academy's business accounting and development manager. Already aware that Kristensen was a generous man, as he offered to host me at his family's beautiful home, I was still pleasantly surprised by the incredible dinner and breakfast offered to me, and the following day's itinerary that was arranged so I could meet the many people who have contributed to making Samso a world leader in sustainability.
The next day began with Kristensen providing an overview of Samso's 10 year Renewable Energy Island Project while we ate homemade bread and jam, local cheese, fresh squeezed organic orange juice and of course espresso. The project began after Denmark's Minister for the Environment—Svend Auken—returned from the Kyoto Climate Talks in Japan, enthusiastic about his country reducing its carbon emissions. In 1997, Auken announced a competition asking local communities or islands to present the most realistic and realizable plan for a 100 percent transition to self-sufficiency through renewable energy. Four islands and one peninsula participated in the competition. In October of that year, Samso was announced the winner and received funding by the Danish Energy Authority to formulate the details of their master plan.
Ten years later, Samso was generating more electricity from renewable energy than it consumed, mainly from 11 onshore and 10 offshore wind turbines, totaling 34 megawatts. Samso's CO2 footprint is negative 12 tons per inhabitant, which includes the 10 offshore turbines that were built to compensate for carbon emissions from the transportation sector. The average CO2 footprint in Denmark is 10 tons per inhabitant. If the offshore turbines were not included, the Samso footprint would be 4.5 tons per inhabitant. Samso's longterm goal is to be a fossil free island, phasing out oil, gas and coal by 2030.
After listening to Kristensen for nearly an hour, it was clear that the success of the island project was based on its bottom up approach. Nine of the 11 onshore wind turbines were bought by farmers, and the remaining two bought by more than 500 people who live on the island or have summer homes there. Each 1 megawatt wind turbine powers approximately 630 homes.
Ten, 2.3 megawatt offshore wind turbines were installed more than two miles south of Samso to offset the CO2 emissions from the transportation sector on the island, including cars, ferries and farming equipment. Five of the offshore wind turbines were purchased by the Samso municipality, three by Samso farmers and two by an investment company selling smaller shares to stakeholders.
Ownership of the wind turbines by locals made them an integral part of the project and helped contribute to the success of the master plan. Samso has become a global example of how to create a sustainable community through local ownership and community engagement.
After one more espresso, we were off to visit one of the onshore wind turbines owned by a local farmer.
“We are now standing here in front of Jorgen Tranberg's private wind turbine. He's a big farmer, but if you ask him if he's a farmer, he says 'No, I'm an energy producer.' He also has a lot of solar cells on his roof," said Kristensen.
Kristensen detailed how the 11 onshore wind turbines were placed democratically, so if the turbines needed to be moved a little to the right or a little to the left to make everyone in the community happy, that's what they did. They had a lot of coffee together, and sometimes beer, to discuss how their island could implement renewable energy and other sustainability initiatives. The approach was to ensure buy-in from all the locals, and it worked.
Tranberg grows corn, raises cattle and produces biomass for the local district's heating plants. He delivers straw to the plants on contract, instead of burning it in his fields. The transition to local heating plants provided additional income to farmers and reduced overall carbon emissions by making a waste by-product a commodity for the farmer.
Tranberg also grows potatoes, which are called Samso Gold. Potatoes are a basic crop of Samso, especially when farmers grow first crop potatoes under plastic and harvest them just two months after planting. The potatoes are then sold to restaurants in Copenhagen for around 1,000 Danish Kroner per kilo ($185 USD), making a very nice income for the potato farmer.
I enjoyed seeing where these Samso Gold potatoes were grown, as I had been told at a restaurant in Copenhagen, “You haven't had a potato until you've had a Samso potato."
The next stop was to one of the four district heating plants. Three of the heating facilities use straw, a by-product of growing barley, and one uses wood chips from local forests in Samso combined with solar thermal panels used to heat water. One plant is owned by 240 households, one by a private farmer and two by the energy company NRGi. Conversation is underway regarding the ownership model of the district plants with thoughts on new heating concepts that would combine straw and solar power with heating pumps. These plants would use less straw, thereby providing the opportunity to build a new biogas plant that would fuel cars and a new gas ferry that will soon be available in addition to the diesel-powered ferry.
"This local district heating plant was established in 2004 and 2005, costing around 16 million Danish Kroner, or $2.9 million USD. They are using straw as the main resource for heating. Each straw block weighs about 600 kilos [1,300 pounds], which is the equivalent to 200 liters [53 gallons] of oil. So instead of sending the money down to Saudi Arabia, we actually keep the money here in Samso. It's a better solution for the locals," shared Kristensen as he stood in front of a mountain of straw.
"This plant uses around 1,200 tons per year and services 240 homes. It is owned by the community."
Our next stop was an organic produce farm. Though the majority of crops grown on the island are conventional—using a significant amount of pesticides—there's a growing movement towards organically grown produce, dairy products and grains.
Kristensen took me to the organic farm Okologiske Grontsager (translation: ecological vegetables), which is run by Johannes Find Loeb and Rasmus Lund Jensen. Loeb and Jensen recently finished organic farming school and were given the opportunity to rent this 35 acre farm, which has been organic since 1987.
Loeb and Jensen received a warm welcome when they arrived in Samso as there's great concern regarding the next generation of farmers. The population of Samso has been decreasing every year with a current count of 3,750 year-round residents. Kristensen said it's refreshing to see young people on the island working to improve the soil and becoming part of Samso's sustainability initiatives.
The plan is for the land to be bought by a foundation to ensure it will remain organic and provide opportunities for younger generations to farm. Due to the high cost of farms, it's almost impossible for new generations to take over. This new ownership model is being developed to attract new generations to grow organic food.
Loeb and Jensen are using 125 different varieties of seeds. They plan to sell their produce to stores in Aarhus, a city on the mainland northwest of Samso, and to local Samso restaurants. They will also have a vegetable stand near the harbor to sell produce to the 75,000 tourists that visit Samso from June to August.
We stopped for lunch at the Energy Academy where Kristensen and Hermansen work. The Energy Academy functions as a conference center where companies, scientists and politicians can come to discuss renewable energy, energy savings and new technologies, and learn firsthand how Samso successfully implemented their 10-year renewable energy plan combined with its current focus of becoming a fossil free island by 2030.
Inspiration is felt on many different levels at the Energy Academy. In addition to a wealth of information to help ignite the most elaborate sustainability plans, the building itself eloquently showcases green building principles. It has a natural ventilation system and uses rainwater to flush toilets and provides hot water through a small thermal solar system. Walls and windows are highly insulated to minimize energy consumption and the building is heated by the local straw-based district heating plant. All electric appliances are A-class energy savers, the electric lighting is low energy and the windows are positioned to maximize passive solar energy. Electricity is supplied by a battery of PV solar cells, supplemented by Samso grid electricity, which for the most part is delivered by the island wind turbines.
We lunched with a group of people who live on several different islands surrounding Finland that was visiting the Energy Academy to learn from the experiences of Samso in hopes of implementing similar plans back home.
While eating another delicious meal, I learned about the many challenges faced in Finland to gain support for renewable energy projects. After coffee and dessert, Kristensen quickly showed me the rest of the Energy Academy and we were on our way to another local farm.
"My husband is a fourth generation farmer. He has been a farmer for many years and has been an organic farmer since 2002. He makes wheat for bread production," said Ida C. Holst who toured us around her farm where they grow wheat, rye and oats.
"This windmill is ours. My husband was one of a few farmers that had the possibility of getting his own windmill. He saw it as a very good investment."
Their company, Samso Mel, sells organic flour to retail outlets and restaurants on the island. They recently began selling their products direct to consumers via their website and to other parts of Denmark.
On our drive from Samso Mel, we quickly stopped at one of the city buildings where they have a 120 kilowatt solar carport that powers electrical vehicles owned by the Samso municipality.
Next, I met Bent Degn Aage Mikkelsen who produces organic cheese and butter on his dairy farm on the south end of the island. He makes three different types of cheese and sells it to restaurants, especially in the summer when the tourists flock to the island.
I met with Mikkelsen at the Oekologisk Samso (translation: Samso Eco-Store) where his dairy products are sold along with other sustainable products from around the island. The eco-store is in the center of town and owned by a unique community of farmers and consumers. Monthly meetings are held at this location to educate community members about the importance of organic products and sustainability initiatives underway.
The idea of Organic Samso, where organic farmers from the island and outside experts established a common agricultural fund, was born at one of these meetings in the fall of 2012 in collaboration with the Energy Academy.
The main objective of the fund is to purchase the Okologiske Grøntsager farm so that it can be rented by organic farmers and increase the availability of organic food on the island, while also creating green jobs and increasing the Samso population.
In the winter of 2013, the project was expanded to include organic consumers, personal gardeners and sustainable living communities.
The last official stop was to the Samso Golf Club. Kristensen, an avid golfer, was very much looking forward to showing me all the sustainability initiatives at the local golf course.
First I had a look at the solar powered lawn mower, which I later got to drive. We were toured around on electric golf carts by the manager of the grounds, Greenkeeper Thomas Pihlkjaer. He explained how they use seaweed liquid extract instead of chemical fertilizers and are experimenting with different types of clover. The clover captures nitrogen from the air thereby fertilizing the grass. No irrigation is needed, so the grass stays green even during drought, and no herbicides are needed as the clover out-competes weeds.
The 3.4 kilowatt solar system powers a pump to bring water to other parts of the golf course for irrigation. The old pumps at the golf course have been replaced by new modern pumps saving an estimated 30 percent of electricity.
With just a little time left before I needed to board the ferry, Kristensen took me to a beautiful park, Stavns Fjord Fredning Og Vildtreservat (translation: Stavns Fjord Wildlife and Nature Reserve), and we visited the island's lighthouse.
For only spending 20 hours on Samso, I clearly got to see a lot. Thanks to Kristensen for touring me around the island and introducing me to the many people working to make Samso one of the world's most sustainable communities. The Samso Energy Academy is a beacon for the rest of the world, illustrating how we can create sustainable communities through local ownership and local engagement.
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By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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