An Ecotopia for Climate Protection Samso Island Is Face of Danish Green Revolution

The Danish island of Samso is a mecca for climate protection experts, because its residents generate more energy than they consume -- with wind turbines, solar panels, straw combustion and heat exchangers that extract heat from cow's milk. The small ecotopia will be held up as a model at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

By Clemens Höges


Six years ago, Paul Erik Wedelgaard decided it was high time to set a new course for his future, even though he was already 70 at the time. The sun, the cold and the sea have carved deep furrows into his face. His wooden fishing cutter, the "Kyholm," is plowing southward through the Baltic Sea, to the place where the symbols of this future -- wind turbines -- stand off the coast of Samso.

Even today, Wedelgaard is almost as agile on deck as he was at 14, when he began fishing. But his catch of cod has declined sharply in recent years, and the small salmon farm he was operating with a partner wasn't sufficiently profitable. And then along came those young men who had decided to start something of a revolution -- on Samso, of all places. They had ideas, and they had an ambitious plan.

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Photo Gallery: How Samso Became Self-Sustainable

They were concerned about the world and the climate. Most of all, however, they were interested in Samso and all the money they hoped could be made there. For people like Wedelgaard, it seemed like a relatively safe bet.

Part of their plan included erecting 10 giant wind turbines in the Paludan flats, at a cost of 24 million kroner, or about €3 million ($4.4 million), each. The machines were to be owned by the Samsingers, as the island's residents are called.

'We Have to Do Something for the Children'

Wedelgaard knew, of course, that the Paludan flats are located in a particularly windy area. It could work, he thought to himself. He sold his half of the salmon farm, took out a bank loan and invested 3.5 million kroner in one of the turbines, unit No. 6. Wedelgaard will have recouped his investment in four years. "We have to do something for the children," he says. He is referring to his four children and the others on the island.

Samso is a laboratory where the Danish government launched a social and technological experiment 12 years ago. Before that, heating oil was brought to the island by ship and electricity, mainly from coal-burning power plants, was transmitted through cables. For each Samsinger, 11 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide were pumped into the atmosphere each year. The goal was to reduce those 11 tons to zero within 10 years, without special subsidies.

The Samsingers joined forces, erecting the wind turbines and attaching solar panels to their roofs. They built central straw burners, and they installed machines to harness geothermal energy and the heat from cow's milk to heat houses, and to extract rapeseed oil from plants grown on the island to produce fuel for their tractors.

A Climate-Neutral Island

Eight years later, they were already producing more energy than they consumed, which made them climate-neutral, and today they produce 40 percent more energy than they consume. Only two questions remain. Can the approach used on the island, which comprises 22 villages, 4,000 residents and a small cannery, work elsewhere? And does the rest of the world even want to emulate the Samsingers?

These are the sorts of questions that will be asked on Dec. 7, when politicians from around the world gather in Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Their goal is to prevent worldwide temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This is only achievable if emissions of carbon dioxide and the consumption of coal, oil and gas are drastically reduced. Experts are already at odds over just how drastically.

"It's important to negotiate, but then they have to go home and do something," says the man who organized the small miracle on Samso Island. "We don't wake up every morning thinking about how we're going to save the polar bears. No, people think about themselves." But this isn't a problem for Soren Hermansen; it's the solution.

A Climate Change Guru

Hermansen has become a guru of sorts for climate experts and politicians. Last fall, his name appeared on the cover of Time, together with the names of other "Heroes of the Environment." The cover image featured circles of different sizes to indicate the relative importance of each name. Hermansen's circle was about four times the size of that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California.

It isn't easy catching Hermansen on his island. He spends a lot of time flying around the world. He has just returned from Copenhagen, where he appeared before the Danish parliament, and before that he was in Japan, Korea, Italy and Brussels. José Barroso, the head of the European Commission, was at the Brussels meeting, where the Russian energy minister quarreled with his Ukrainian counterpart on the sidelines. And Hermansen, a former farmer from the village of Kolby Kaas on Samso, sharply criticized them for not making a sufficiently serious attempt to do what his fellow islanders have accomplished.

Hermansen, 50, his short hair slightly graying, has the physique of an athlete and is quick to flash his big smile. Now he is sitting in a building that, with its shiny metal skin, looks a little like the Starship Enterprise -- in the middle of a rural village. Hermansen plays the role of Captain Kirk, as director of this "energy academy" in Ballen, an old fishing village. Visitors from around the world come to Ballen to examine the equipment the Samsingers use and the infrastructure they have developed. Of course, the building itself is also a model, with its solar panels and a computer that occasionally opens and closes ventilation flaps in the roof.

Hermansen describes how the Samso concept works. In 1997, the Danish Energy Ministry announced a contest. A region was to be selected to test how effective renewable energy can be in a real environment. It was a clever contest, requiring the winning region to achieve a carbon footprint of zero with existing technology and without special assistance or subsidies from Copenhagen. This would make the results more readily transferable to other places, and the whole project wouldn't cost the government a single kroner.

An engineer in the city of Aarhus, across the water from Samso, hit upon the idea to write a plan for Samso. He analyzed how much electricity and oil the Samsingers consumed, how much biomass grows there each year, how strong the wind blows and how long the sun shines. Then he wrote his plan -- and won the contest.

Samso was dubbed an "eco-energy island," a title not unlike a brass medal -- well-intentioned, but almost worthless. It helped in obtaining the necessary permits for the new equipment, but the Samsingers themselves had little use for the designation at first. When TV reporters came to the island to interview the mayor, he was at a loss for words and had to consult the concept before answering their questions.

The engineer advised a few people on Samso to establish an association, or else, he said, the plan would never materialize. Fifty Samsingers attended the first meeting in Tranebjerg. But the island's remaining 3,950 stayed home. They were simply unable to see the engineer's concept as a profitable enterprise.

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