Living a green dream on Danish island

SAMSO, Denmark Mon Aug 18, 2008 11:51am EDT

1 of 5. A windmill stands in a field on the Danish island of Samso May 20, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Bob Strong

SAMSO, Denmark (Reuters) - Concerns about energy security may run high elsewhere in Europe, but on the windswept Danish island of Samso the inhabitants have achieved a decade-long target of self-sufficiency in renewable power.

It's a challenge their government set the island in 1997 and which has been largely funded through local taxes and individual investments, in one of Europe's wealthier countries -- Denmark's GDP per capita was more than $35,000 in 2006.

Now the islanders have shown that where there's a wind, there's a way -- and in the process mounted a global showcase for one of the prize export industries in Denmark, which is home to the world's largest wind-turbine maker, Vestas.

"I often use Samso as an ambitious example of how to cope with the big challenges that our own country faces in the race to become independent of fossil fuels," said Randy Udall, a U.S. energy sustainability activist.

Based in Colorado, Udall imports ideas from all over the world on how to make communities self-sufficient in energy.

On Samso, which is home to just 4,000 people, wind turbines tower over green fields and rise from the choppy waters of the North Sea; rye, wheat and straw are used to heat the one-storey buildings and solar panels have sprouted on roof tiles.

"I think Samso has set an agenda for the climate issue and, alongside other projects, it has shown that this is possible," said Soren Hermansen, director of the Samso Energy Academy and one of the project's main drivers.

Without any construction subsidies, the islanders have invested 400 million Danish crowns ($84.35 million) -- an average of more than $20,000 per citizen.

"We invested $84 million -- a big number for 4,000 people -- but in reality it's not a whole lot," said islander Jorgen Tranberg, who describes himself as a milk producer who "owns a couple of turbines".

In Denmark's geographical centre, Samso used to be best known for its early-season potatoes. Now 11 onshore wind turbines cover all local electricity demands and 70 percent of the island's homes are heated using biofuels or solar power.

While some homes have opted to stay with oil furnaces for heating and cars are still common, the island has become carbon neutral by erecting 10 offshore wind turbines -- in addition to the 11 on land -- to offset the automobiles' carbon emissions and those from the 30 percent of homes still heated by oil.

"We even produce far more electricity than we need," said Hermansen. The surplus is sold to the mainland.

To promote wind-power, the Danish government subsidises wind energy production to the tune of about 20 to 50 percent of the final cost of power to consumers.

BEATING THE EU

The islanders' efforts dovetail with European Union policy but have gone much further than official targets.

The European Union has committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by a fifth by 2020 from 1990 levels, and to get one-fifth of all energy demand from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass.

Some islanders say the renewable project has been helped by developing as a grassroots venture rather than having targets and regulations imposed by a bureaucracy.

"First of all you need determination and can-do spirit, and then you need an economic foundation to make it possible," Tranberg told Reuters in the cockpit of his wind turbine.

Many islanders own shares in the onshore wind turbines, an investment that they originally hoped would pay back after eight to 10 years.

A stronger-than-expected wind -- blowing 10-15 percent more force than expected into the blades -- cut the payback time and now Samso Energy Academy says a share in a wind turbine generates about 500 crowns per year in income.

"We held a lot of meetings, but we managed to do it because we hired good experts and trusted our own instinct," said Tranberg, who bought one early turbine himself and then a second offshore one with a partner.

"What is intriguing about Samso is their ability to make this project a sport for them, to show that this can be done," said the U.S. activist Udall.

There have been secondary benefits for islanders too: cement was needed to build the turbines' foundations, solar panels had to be installed and homeowners began to demand better insulation.

This gave blacksmiths and cement workers a reason to stay on the island at a time of economic slowdown: five families moved in to take on new 'renewable energy' jobs.

OVERSEAS INTEREST

The project has attracted great overseas interest: ambassadors representing foreign countries in Denmark, on a recent trip to see Samso's small towns driven by solar panel farms and wind power, were impressed.

"What we're trying to learn is how to do it -- how to achieve that level of energy renewable self-sufficiency that Samso and the community here have achieved," said Frederica Gregory, Canadian ambassador to Denmark.

It has also helped draw attention to Denmark's wind power prowess. Jutland-based Vestas last week reported a 67 percent rise in its order backlog to over 7 billion euros, and estimated wind power will account for at least 10 per cent of global power output in 2020, from a little over 1 percent today.

This translates into annual growth of between 20 and 25 percent over the next 12 years.

"Using resources (that are) locally available and producing it in a way that is self-sufficient for the island while exporting green energy is something many nations would love to see," said Slovenian ambassador Rudolf Gabrovec.

(Additional reporting by Kim McLaughlin; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile and Sara Ledwith)

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