SUSTAINABLE ENERGY:

If you build it, tourists, politicians and the media will come

SAMSØ, Denmark -- This small, windswept island off the coast of Denmark, known since the late 1990s as a pioneer in the field of renewable energy, has lately been feeling a fresh wind in its turbines.

Samsø has become a busy learning center for politicians, activists, reporters, scientists and schoolchildren alike. It will be a Danish government showcase leading up to the U.N.-sponsored climate conference set for December in Copenhagen.

To reach Samsø from the Danish port of Aarhus, visitors take an hour-long ferry ride into the gray waters of the North Sea. What emerges out of the mist is a flat, low-rising farming island known for its sweet strawberries and early potatoes. Quite a few mainland Danes keep summer houses on its shores, but Samsø is hardly a tourist mecca.

Yet the world has been coming here for several years. The Web site of the Samsø Energy Academy -- a local research and conference center -- proudly lists CBS, ABC, Reuters and the New Yorker magazine; British, French, German and Italian newspapers and TV stations; and Canadian and Norwegian radio reporters. It points out that the media invasion is only part of the army of more than 2,000 politicians, officials, scientists, students and "interested individuals" who visit Samsø annually.

What are they coming for? Samsø is one of the few places on earth that are CO2 neutral and net energy exporters.

Time magazine went so far as to name Samsø's clean energy guru Søren Hermansen as its "Hero of the Environment" last year. Hermansen, director of the Samsø academy, is credited for mobilizing the islanders around the project in the late 1990s and then shepherding it for the last decade.

The Danish government has the welcome mat out. Last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited all 52 ambassadors posted in Denmark on an "energy safari" to the island. This year, the ministry of climate and energy is busy touting Samsø as the government strives to present Denmark as a "working laboratory" for energy technologies in the run-up to the December conference.

"Energy efficiency in Denmark has been created by a range of new technologies and solutions, and this can today serve as an example of how one can create a high level of growth without a corresponding increase in energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions," says the ministry, adding that Denmark "has put a strong focus on energy saving and a secure energy supply since the oil crises in the 1970s." In 1985, the ministry reminds us, the Danish parliament rejected nuclear power, opting to focus on new, sustainable sources of energy instead.

Stumbling into the spotlight

Notwithstanding the Danish government's present enthusiasm, the truth is that the islanders, or "Samsingers," have been pursuing what someone called their "quiet but radical revolution" on their own for more than a decade, with little public help.

"The island people had to finance the 10-year plan by themselves," noted Hermansen, speaking at a recent conference on climate change in Aarhus.

In 1999-2000, using their own money, the Samsingers erected 11 1-megawatt wind turbines costing a total of nearly €8.8 million ($11.8 million) on the island, to make it self-sufficient in electricity. Then they had 2.3 MW turbines built in the sea south of Samsø -- at a cost of about €33.3 million ($44.6 million) -- to compensate for the CO2 emissions generated by ferries and the island's transport sector.

Each of these turbines is the property of either a windmill cooperative, individual owners, local businesses or the Samsø municipality.

"We want ownership to be local," explained Hermansen, adding that local owners proudly visit their windmills in their free time and can monitor wind farm production online from their living rooms.

What is more, the energy academy states that renewable energy meets about 70 percent of the island's heating needs. Four district heating stations have been built to produce hot water using straw and wood chips produced by local farmers, and solar panels have been installed throughout the island.

A walk through one of the heating plants showed that they are fairly basic installations, using wheat and rye straw to provide hot water to heat the villages of Ballen and Brundby. "When America gets into this, it's going to be a lot bigger and a lot more efficient," predicted Jasper Kjems, an academy employee, with a confident smile.

Small and locally owned is beautiful

Located along the road between Ballen and Brundby, the plant is entirely owned by the citizens of both villages. In 2002, with the help of Samsø Energy Co., these citizens joined a group to set up a district heating system based on straw.

It is often said that Samsø is energy self-sufficient, but this is either exaggeration or a misunderstanding. The island does indeed produce more electricity than it needs, but the ferries linking it to the mainland as well as the cars meandering down its narrow, winding roads all run on fossil fuels -- apart from a handful of electric vehicles driven by employees of the island's energy program.

Also, more than 2,000 houses are situated in the open countryside, too far away from the district heating systems. Samsø's agriculture is not at all organic, and local farmers are said to make liberal use of fertilizers.

Yet because these islanders are producing more clean electricity than they consume, and because their transportation energy consumption is entirely compensated for by electricity produced from offshore wind turbines, the Samsingers claim that they have cut their carbon footprint by 140 percent.

CO2 reduction was an afterthought

And Samsø wants to go further. The energy academy's Web site says the island is "experimenting" with electric and biofuel vehicles, "while keeping a watchful eye" on hydrogen technology, adding, "It should be possible one day to use wind turbine energy to propel electric or hydrogen vehicles."

In the meantime, the island has turned its attention to educating the world by sharing its experimentation.

"We have to focus on teaching people from Denmark and the rest of the world," said the energy academy's Frank Mundt. "We take the energy theme as a common denominator to give hope back to young people who feel depressed because of pollution, climate change and overuse of natural resources. We spread a good virus, we change the DNA!"

But Hermansen, the director of the academy, says he and his fellow Samsingers didn't embark on their "revolution" in order to save the planet.

At the Aarhus conference, Hermansen told a captivated audience that Samsø's project was motivated first of all by survival -- creating jobs and giving the local economy a shot in the arm -- as well as by the desire to reduce the island's dependence on imported energy.

"Being CO2 neutral came way down the list," he readily admitted. "We simply don't gain from carbon reduction."

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