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This article is from the In-Depth Report What Is the Smart Grid?

100 Percent Renewable? One Danish Island Experiments with Clean Power [Slide Show]

One small island in Denmark is technically 100 percent powered by sustainable sources of energy. Could the experiment succeed anywhere else?
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© David Biello

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TRANEBJERG, Samso, Denmark—It can seem as if the icy, cutting wind off the North Sea never stops blowing on this Danish island in winter, bending back the grass, whipping straight the flags, and setting mammoth wind turbines to their stately spinning. That's good news for Samso's 4,000 or so inhabitants, seeing as they own shares in 20 of the 21 turbines that either tower over the island or rise from the offshore waters of the Kattegat Strait, which connects the Baltic and North seas.

Some people see wind turbines as eyesores or complain about the sound of their whirring blades, but Soren Hermansen, chief proselytizer for the island's renewable energy experiment and director of the Samso Energy Academy, disagrees. "If you own a share in a wind turbine it looks better, it sounds better," he says. "It sounds like money in the bank."

The land-based turbines are 50 meters tall with blades that stretch some 27 meters from end to end. The sea-based turbines are even more massive—63 meters high (not including the spike pounded into the seafloor beneath the waves) with 40-meter blades. A single such turbine can generate roughly eight million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year at a cost of $3 million per turbine (the onshore variety are cheaper, at just over $1 million).

Drawing on a Danish co-operative tradition that stretches back 150 years to raise the cash needed to build and run slaughterhouses and other community facilities, around one in 10 "Samsingers" owns at least a share in one of the turbines, which generates an annual check based on its output and the price of electricity. The turbines also have allowed all 4,000 residents to produce more energy from renewable resources than they consume, thereby eliminating, on balance, their emissions of carbon dioxide.

View Slide Show of Samso, the Renewable Energy Island

After all, a massive three-megawatt wind turbine "pays back" the carbon dioxide emitted in its making—mining iron, smelting steel, trucking blades, among other things—in roughly seven months of operation by displacing emissions from fossil fuel–fired power plants, according to Michael Zarin, director of government relations at the Denmark-based wind turbine–maker Vestas Wind Systems. Wind power is now responsible for 100 percent of Samso's electricity needs, 20 percent of all of Denmark's, and has become the largest single type of new electricity generation installed in the U.S. "There's nothing alternative about wind anymore," Zarin notes.

But Samso—an island of some 22 villages that is twice the size of Manhattan—does present an alternative view of the future. "It sounds like we did something extraordinary on this island," Hermansen says of the island's inhabitants who effectively remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than they contribute to it. (An average Dane adds some 10 metric tons of CO2 per year.) "We are just normal people—maybe a little naive, maybe a little egoistic, maybe boring—but this is about how we are going to make our normal life work."

History lesson
The Samso experiment started in 1997 when an enterprising consultant, Ole Johnsson from Aarhus, Denmark's second-largest city, convinced Samso's mayor (and only the mayor) to enter a national competition to become a renewable energy island. "He thought he would go to Copenhagen with a wheelbarrow and come back with money like a Viking," Hermansen says. And although the Danish government did invest nearly $90 million over the next decade, it came with some requirements: energy self-sufficiency employing readily available technology produced in Denmark, plus the need for local matching funds. "From then on, we knew it was a very uphill project," says Hermansen, a failed farmer who became the project's first employee.

The decision to even have such an island stemmed from a little bit of Danish history; in 1985 Denmark essentially abandoned long-running plans to build nuclear power plants and instead chose to focus on developing renewable energy sources, particularly wind power, along with maintaining its fleet of fossil fuel–fired power plants. The country then committed in the 1990s as part of the Kyoto Protocol to cutting emissions to 21 percent below 1990 levels.

As a result of these decisions, three things happened: Vestas, Bonus and Danish wind turbine–makers came to lead their industry globally; a high fossil-fuel tax created generous government subsidies for renewable development; and Samso became sustainable—producing more energy than it consumed for the first time in 2005 and every year since. "[The] fossil-fuel consumer is actually paying for the green development," Hermansen notes.

That's a more remarkable achievement given that Samsingers began the process, heating their houses with oil, importing electricity from coal-burning via an undersea transmission line as part of the Jutland grid, and generally leading the CO2-intensive lifestyle we all know and love—with no interest in change.

It was Hermansen's job to change that attitude, which he did via a public discussion fueled by free coffee, apple juice and, perhaps most importantly, free beer. He also used trickery, including shaming blacksmiths to attend sustainable heating installation training by telling each one in turn that the other blacksmiths on the island had already agreed to attend. "That was not true," he admits. But the blacksmith is "the wise guy. He is going to install it and he is going to maintain. If he is recommending that you don't buy it, you won't."

At first, the island's residents, mostly farmers, weren't buying it—just 50 people showed up for the first meeting. After all, Samso is nearly surrounded by coal-fired power plants in three compass directions (east, west and south) producing cheap electricity. But the closure of a slaughterhouse that put 100 Samsingers out of work, paired with the economic angle—renewable projects on the island have resulted in an average of 30 new jobs annually for the past 10 years—finally convinced enough people to sign the contracts and get the project underway.

Just four years later there were 10 2.3-megawatt Bonus wind turbines offshore, part of a test installation for a larger project of 120 sea-based turbines elsewhere in the country. Fossil-fuel use had been cut in half, thanks to the addition of insulation made from newspapers in most of the island's houses and the replacement of old oil boilers with efficient wood stoves, solar hot water and other devices. A few years later, once all 21 turbines were online, the island produced the 26 million kilowatt-hours its residents used yearly and began exporting some 80 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually (enabling them to make the 100 percent renewable power claim as well as derive more than $8 million in revenue per annum thanks to a bonus payment for renewable energy supplies and to 10-year contracts utilities are required by law to sign with wind power producers.) One farmer alone, Jorgen Tranberg, who owns one turbine outright, makes as much as $4,000 a day.

Now microturbines for individual households poke the sky across the island, including at least a dozen peaking above narrow town streets or standing next to farmhouses on the islands' rolling hillsides, where everything from potatoes and strawberries to pumpkins and Christmas trees are grown. Farmers have embraced the change because of the extra revenue, and Erik Kock Andersen has gone even further, actually growing canola for oil, processing it into biodiesel, and using it to fuel his own car and tractor—the leftovers feed his cows. "He's his own oil sheikh out there," Hermansen says.

The retired school principal, Christian Hovmand, has installed 16 solar panels on his roof, inspired by a solar-powered pocket calculator he once received. "If he is consuming more than he is producing, he runs around unplugging things while his poor wife is sitting in the dark," Hermansen says. "It's like a game for him."

In fact, it's a renewable energy craze on the vacation island of Denmark—some 500,000 Danish and European families visit Samso each summer. "They are, of course, included in total energy consumption," Hermansen says. Plus, 1,100 have invested in one of the offshore turbines, making it the "one of the most clear tourist traps we have created," Hermansen notes. Weekly boat trips to offshore turbine  number 7 cost roughly $30 per ticket.

Throughout the island it can feel like some industrious and obsequious servant of the future is following you around, turning lights on and off as you pass, delivering hot water and heat from renewable resources. In fact, Samso itself is literally rising from the sea a few millimeters per year, rebounding from the Ice Age, just as it appears to be leading the rise of an alternative to the Oil Age.

Realistic view
Of course, the wind on Samso doesn't always blow, although it felt that way from atop one of the 50-meter wind turbines. A six-story ladder inside the turbine's stem takes one to the turbine room where the press of a button opens the hatch roof, allowing one to spy, in the ocean, the offshore turbines as well as, across the strait, the billowing steam of a DONG Energy coal-fired power plant—the same facility that helps keep the lights on in Samso when the turbines are not producing. Sometimes that happens because the wind dies down and sometimes it is because the 21 turbines, each in their turn, face maintenance problems, such as overheated gearboxes from the 1,500 revolutions a minute they undergo. In fact, it was just such a malfunction that stopped this turbine spinning and allowed it to be climbed; replacing a single gearbox costs roughly $150,000.

But Samso also has another resource in abundance: straw from wheat or rye. The residents have used it as bedding for their cows, goats and even shaggy horses for centuries but now also burn it for heat and hot water as part of district heating schemes that have replaced the old oil boilers. Barn cats play near the half-ton bales in the Ballen–Brundby plant—each bale represents the heating equivalent of roughly one barrel of oil, helping boil water and pipe it underground to 260 houses in the vicinity.

There are four such plant-burning heating units on the island, including one in the far north that employs wood chips and solar panels to keep a picturesque village of "traditional" thatched-roof Danish houses heated and with hot water, including the tourists each summer who can take as many as three showers a day.

And Tranberg, the farmer/wind turbine magnate, has gone one further, installing a heat pump to literally harvest the warmth of his cow's milk and use it to heat his bathroom shower.

Despite all this, that one coal-fired power plant across the Kattegat emits the equivalent CO2 in less than a month that is saved by all of Samso in a year. A less efficient plant in the U.S. or China does so even faster—and there are 476 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. alone.

The island has also had some false starts, including electric cars and a biodigester that was supposed to have turned animal waste lagoons into fuel. Hermansen still trundles about the island in a blue and white electric Citroen with cadmium–lead batteries. "I might drive in a clean way but the product is not so good," he notes, adding that the cars spend a lot of time with the mechanic.

Plus, despite Samso's best efforts to keep all its technology nationally based, its turbine-maker Bonus is now part of German industrial giant Siemens—and the island's population continues to dwindle, dropping from 4,500 a decade ago to just 4,000 today. "My son, who is 16 years old, thinks it is dead here and lives in Copenhagen," Hermansen says. "For the survival of the island we need more jobs and a better local economy."

Hermansen and other Samsingers now dream of a carbon-neutral hotel on the island with a fleet of electric cars. In the empty field where the hotel might stand, just across the road from the beach, efforts are underway to test whether converting electricity generated by the local wind turbines at night—when rates are low—might be efficiently converted to hydrogen via electrolysis and then back into electricity for sale when rates are higher during the day. A test electrolyzer sits in a converted shed, busily converting electricity from the smallest wind turbine on the island into the universe's lightest element.

Without electric cars or Andersen's biodiesel, Samsingers have found no way to replace the fossil fuels consumed by the island's ferry, trucks, tractors and cars—the ferry alone consumes 9,000 liters of diesel fuel daily and is the island's only transportation to the mainland—or the flights to Shanghai and other locales that Hermansen undertakes each year to spread the renewable gospel. "I own shares in a wind turbine, have a wood-burning furnace and solar panels on my roof, so I'm doing pretty good," he says. But it's "not enough to offset his travel and be carbon neutral."

In fact, the best Samsingers could do was to install the 10 offshore wind turbines to offset the continuing CO2 emissions from their transportation. "This shows how difficult it is to decarbonize the transportation sector," says Ko Sakamoto, a senior economics and policy consultant at the U.K.'s Transport Research Library. "Behavioral change is more difficult to create than the technology change."

Of course, even a transition to electric cars in the future would have one major impact: increased electricity consumption. That's one area where Samsingers are not changing their behavior—consumption has remained the same over the course of the experiment despite conservation efforts, thanks, perhaps, to electric heaters, computers and the enormous, flat-screen panel TVs visible in nearly every window. During the Christmas season, decorative lights wrapped homes and trees. As the Samsingers wrote in the 10-year summary of their project, electricity consumption "is unchanged during the period 1997 to 2005. The reason is, despite savings and better practices in energy use, homes have more domestic equipment."

Even with years of traveling from meeting to meeting and household to household, electricity consumption remains the same, and Hermansen seems resigned to that prospect, given the profusion of gadgets. Plus, it took all that travel—as well as a strong cultural tradition of participatory democracy and communal assets—to convince just 4,000 Danes to commit to renewable energy. An investment of $90 million didn't hurt either. "We have a high investment per capita," Hermansen says.

The ongoing meetings remind Hermansen of the Copenhagen climate conference. There, a mere 40,000 people representing some 6.7 billion humans on the planet tried in December to hammer out a deal on both how much greenhouse gases must be restrained and who should pay for that change. Perhaps predictably, that process has delivered mixed results compared with the meetings on Samso. "We can sit down and talk with a few people and gain more common ground than we can in big meetings," Hermansen argues. "It's very complicated and difficult for the climate meeting in Copenhagen to come up with something useful because they don't know each other…It's only gone downhill since we started these COP [conference of the parties] meetings."

Nevertheless, this year the world will use more than 400 quadrillion British thermal units of energy from fossil fuels, adding to the bulk of human emissions of carbon dioxide that now total roughly 30 billion metric tons per year. Energy consumption is growing by roughly 2 percent a year, although the great recession has changed that outlook. "You've bought yourself some savings by having a recession," says Richard Jones, deputy executive director of the International Energy Agency. "But recessions are not a good way to solve climate change."

As a result of all this growth, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are rising by roughly 2 parts per million per year, reaching 387 ppm and still climbing. Samso no longer adds as much of that. The renewable energy island's example may not be all of the solution, but it is certainly far less of the problem.

View Slide Show of Samso, the Renewable Energy Island

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