In 1997 the Ministry of Energy in Denmark announced a competition – they wanted an energy island – a demonstration area to show that a transition to 100% renewable energy could be achieved for a well defined area. The plans had to include community involvement and reduction of energy use in tandem with generation. Four islands and a peninsula took part and Samsoe, to it’s own surprise it seems, was announced the winner. Aero, who also entered and were much further along the line at the time were the favourites to win and have done pretty well for themselves too – despite losing. They have the worlds largest solar thermal array, including, I am told, inter-seasonal heat storage – which is where you stash the heat in the ground in summer for use in the winter, in a natural underground water pocket if you’re lucky enough to have one and in a big sand pit if you aren’t.
But winning the competition didn’t include any vast sums of cash for Samsoe to make it happen. It did provide some money for more detailed feasibility studies and made access to national subsidies and EU grants a bit easier but making it happen was still down to the islanders. There’s a great deal on-line about Samsoe including the report completed (see engineering links on the right) after the ten years that the original plan ran, so I’ll just summarise here. The original intent was:
- To reduce energy needs, especially for heating, through improved awareness and building improvements
- To address transport energy through public transport improvements and widespread uptake of electric car use.
- To provide heat via district heating networks and individual biomass installations for rural properties.
- To provide electricity by large scale wind generation, particularly a ten turbine offshore array at the south end of the island.
So did they get there? Well they are net carbon zero, or positive on a good year. With the off shore wind farm and two more onshore they produce more energy over the course of the year than they use in buildings and in transport on the island combined. The energy usage reductions have not been realized (although neither have they increased) despite falling population for all the same reasons as everywhere else on the planet. Even if you improve insulation and fit yourself out with more energy efficient equipment we all still use more energy (although arguably we have a better standard of living for the same energy use).
What I like about Samsoe, energy wise, is that it shows that it can be done, and it also demonstrates the size of installation, the quantity of resource (wind and growing area for biomass) required for even a modest community and the possibilities of community involvement. The last is especially interesting – Samsoe is an island of farmers and farmers I reckon are pretty much the same the world over – suspicious of outsiders, belligerent, very economically aware, and bloody minded. But they also not so risk adverse as some – when you deal with the variability that nature can throw at you every year you can’t be. And they have a love of big machines – especially those that save time, money or both. The take up of energy has not been linked to much development in other areas of sustainability (Everyone throws compostable waste in with landfill, some of which is buried on the island, some is shipped to the mainland, there’s very little take up of rainwater harvesting – although as it’s illegal to use it in toilets in public buildings in Denmark that’s hardly surprising, or organic farming methods and I am advised not to swim at the North of the island as raw sewage is still put into the sea in places) but the levels of public ownership and involvement in the energy schemes are as impressive as their scale. Of the offshore array, one is community owned, two are owned by farmers collectives, five were financed by the Municipality with a large loan which was equivalent to 30,000 Kroners, (about four thousand pounds per island inhabitant), leaving only two in the hands of the energy company or outside investors.
I spend some time at the Energy Academy – one of the few new buildings created with local labour rather than outside contractors. It’s a beautiful space – light and airy with several interconnected areas including offices, a mezzanine computer deck, an exhibition space, a seminar room, and a kitchen. All of these are open to each other but the walls are lined with a strawboard material that I’ve seen in a lot of places across Denmark. I assumed it was thermal insulation but it turns out to be acoustic. We’ve installed something similar on schools projects and I was skeptical of how well it would work but it really does. It goes against intuition that I should not be able to hear someone sitting a few metres away in an open space but when you think that sounds are waves then rough surfaces that break them up make sense. The academy is modern and slick although most of the staff are part time and currently engaged in getting more grants, projects or courses going to justify and maintain its existence.
I’m shown around by Jan who takes me, in one of the islands three electric cars, to see some of the sights. We visit his house where he has installed a solar PV array covering the whole roof, sufficient to drive half his heat pump. His primary interest is the controls and he has a smart meter than links to the grid and means he can check his generation output from anywhere. His neighbour has some PV also, but not as many.
Then we visit the hardware shop in Tranebjerg where the owner Ole is setting up a renewable energy display in his showroom. He has a preference for flat plate solar over evacuated tubes and is selling air to water heat pumps, with which he says they get a slightly better year round CoP than the manufacturers state (around 3 so still not enough to justify it on carbon terms with typical grid electric) which he puts down to the mild climate, although they do go below zero. He won’t sell air to air heat pumps because he thinks they’re wrong, and a waste of energy, especially for the holiday homes which he says are poorly insulated. Despite Jan’s pragmatism it seems there are some idealists on the island after all. He tells Jan that his neighbour was in buying more solar panels with a grin – I suspect he’s trying to goad him into competitively buying more himself (but he would need an extension to fit them on). Although they describe it as a ‘hardware store’ it’s a lot more than that and when the display area is complete will be more like an education facility. We also go to see a district heat plant that provides for Nordby and Marup. It has a large solar field that provides about 20% of the heating required (the mid summer base load) and a biomass boiler. The grass is long around the solar collectors because ‘the sheep are busy elsewhere’ at the moment.
This installation is owned and run by the same energy company that manages the offshore wind turbines and so is fitted with flue gas scrubbers to remove the pollutants – the community owned one at the south of the island doesn’t – they couldn’t justify it economically. Without large grants everything on the island has had to be carefully weighed up for affordability and payback times. They’d like a biogas plant to deal with some of the islands waste but it will have to be economically justifiable. To be fair – it’s the same everywhere and perhaps they’re just more honest than most when they say it’s all about the money. There is some evidence of the islanders, as people elsewhere, wanting to ‘do the right thing’ but it’s not the main factor. Jan tells me, ‘We aren’t ‘religious’ here’ (meaning environmentalism). Despite, or perhaps because of, this they’ve achieved their aims of 100% renewable energy, in a very short space of time, without major grant funding, using only available and well tested technology and with a traditionally difficult demographic.