Embedded video via http://www.sbs.com.au/news/dateline/story/green-nirvana
The island won a government competition in 1997 to become a model renewable energy community. At that point, it relied entirely on oil and coal imported from the mainland.
Now it has wind turbines providing all of the island’s electricity, with the excess sold back to the Danish mainland; and 75% of the island’s heating comes from solar power and biomass systems.
The move has the support of the conservative locals… most own shares in windfarms, and one farmer even produces fuel from rape seed oil to run his car and tractor. Factoring in the green power it exports, the Samsø Energy Academy estimates the island has now reduced its carbon footprint by an incredible 170%.
George Negus visits Samsø and asks how it’s been done, if more places should be following its lead and how its lessons can be learned in different communities around the world.
GEORGE NEGUS: It is all a bit ‘Back to the Future’, this place. At first glance, as you leave the port area, Samso looks like a dozen or so villages and a scattered community of fundamentally conservative farmers – which is exactly what it is. But, as you look closer, you start to see telltale signs that something else is going on here, something very different from their quaint, out-of-the-way lifestyle. Erik Andersen is a long-time ‘Samsinger’, as the locals call themselves, and, just like about every one of the island’s 4,000-odd residents, Erik’s well and truly caught up in Samso’s renewable revolution.
GEORGE NEGUS: So, they’re really handsome cattle, aren’t they?
ERIK ANDERSON: Sure.
On the face of it, affable Erik – a man of the Samso soil – isn’t exactly what you’d call a natural greenie, but his gut has always pointed him in an environmentally-friendly direction. So, now, thanks to the island’s self-imposed green technology, these days Erik uses zero fossil fuels, he says in both his daily life and his farm work.
GEORGE NEGUS: Yours is a very deceptive farm because it looks just like a beautiful Danish rural scene, except for when you get here! And what’s that?
ERIK ANDERSON: Solar panels, water-based, for heating the house and the little ones, solar panels, they make electricity. And they are placed here because it’s towards south, and they hit the sun most of the day.
GEORGE NEGUS: So, you’re totally self-sufficient, energy-wise? Do you get all the power and energy that you need?
ERIK ANDERSON: Almost. I have a few shares in the windmills.
GEORGE NEGUS: In some of the turbines?
ERIK ANDERSON: Yeah, wind turbines.
GEORGE NEGUS: A lot of people on the island have got shares in that as well.
ERIK ANDERSON: Yeah, sure.
GEORGE NEGUS: So, it’s not just, if you like, saving the planet. It’s also saving some money and making some money?
ERIK ANDERSON: Not making much money on this. It’s more idealism, I think.
GEORGE NEGUS: Really? Tell me what your idealism is?
ERIK ANDERSON: Not to burn oil often and spoil the environment.
GEORGE NEGUS: Are you experimenting with other things, other things on the farm, where you think you can reduce the emissions?
ERIK ANDERSON: My car and my tractor is running on rape seed oil.
GEORGE NEGUS: Rape seed oil?
ERIK ANDERSON: Canola, whatever you call it.
GEORGE NEGUS: Canola? Yeah, right. And, where is it processed, the rape seed, to get the oil that you need?
ERIK ANDERSON: In the barn.
GEORGE NEGUS: Do you do it yourself?
ERIK ANDERSON: Yeah.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right. Can we have a look at it?
ERIK ANDERSON: Yeah, sure.
GEORGE NEGUS: I’d love to, love to. This is your rape seed plant. But from those seeds, they look dry, you are able to get enough oil you are able to extract enough oil from those rape seeds to run your car?
ERIK ANDERSON: Sure.
GEORGE NEGUS: Off this very, very simple looking piece of engineering.
ERIK ANDERSON: The seed goes into this one and the oil comes out of this little hole.
GEORGE NEGUS: Can you turn it on for us?
ERIK ANDERSON: Yeah, sure.
GEORGE NEGUS: And what about this? What happens to this?
ERIK ANDERSON: I feed it to the cows.
GEORGE NEGUS: Ah-ha! Ah-ha! So this is reusable.
ERIK ANDERSON: Yeah, it’s valuable. It’s got great protein content.
GEORGE NEGUS: And the oil is where?
ERIK ANDERSON: It goes down into these boxes.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right. Running your tractor on that stuff is doing no harm to the environment.
ERIK ANDERSON: The CO2 is picked up by the rape plant again.
GEORGE NEGUS: Really? Does it? What, it actually
ERIK ANDERSON: Recycling.
GEORGE NEGUS:Eric typifies that ‘something different’ that’s clearly going on here. In many ways, this place is out of whack with itself. On the one hand, its remote, old-world beauty, and timeless simplicity, like this fishing village, Ballen. On the other hand, a short stroll away on its outskirts, is this unlikely establishment, the Samso Energy Academy.
SOREN HERMANSEN, SAMSO ENERGY ACADEMY: The driving force of this was not to tell people we will cut down the CO2, but talk about the daily cost, the household economy and the pragmatic attitude to..
GEORGE NEGUS: So, in many ways, it was pragmatism, rather than idealism that was the driving force.
SOREN HERMANSEN: I’d say so, I’d say so.
If there was a driving force behind the island’s attack on its own carbon emissions in recent years it was this guy, Soren Hermansen. Soren’s the director of the academy. He got involved 12 years ago when Samso entered a competition to create Denmark’s greenest, most renewable community, and it won, and that’s when things began to change.
SOREN HERMANSEN: You should think local and act local, and forget about the global. Because, I mean, we live in a community in a world of communication. If somebody living in an apartment building is doing something significant, that will be spread all over the world in no time.
GEORGE NEGUS: Instead of thinking globally, thinks lots of locally.
SOREN HERMANSEN: Yeah!
Once they got a guaranteed price for electricity, the wind turbines became viable, but they still don’t come cheap.
SOREN HERMANSEN: I think you’ve got to remember that we’ve had windmills here for 300 years. They were there because of a practical reason. They were not there to disturb the environment, or to kill some birds or whatever. They were there because we needed them and, today, as a promoter of this, I use the same argument saying, “Why should we have the wind turbines?” Because we need them. We need them to produce cheaper energy and cleaner energy for us and to stop the imported cost of fossil fuel.
GEORGE NEGUS: But, the Soren-driven revolution to make Samso CO2-neutral didn’t stop with the mighty wind-turbines. It spread, and now includes all sorts of ‘things renewable’ in its anti-carbon armoury, like this biomass heating plant for the district – one of many that have sprung up using the co-op model.
GEORGE NEGUS : You’ve got very conservative rural people, like Eric Anderson, that we talked to yesterday, to turn around, turn around, and get rid of all their old habits. How did you do that?
SOREN HERMANSEN: You have to remember that we are – the farming community is an old co-op community. They have this cooperation in them, and they make co-op dairy factories, co-op slaughterhouses, co-op farms.
GEORGE NEGUS: So, they’re used to working together?
SOREN HERMANSEN: Yeah. They have to. We think we are leaders of our own life. I think we have this independent thinking, but we also know that we are part of a system, so, we work in cooperation with the system.
And, then, in a very pragmatic way, we see “What’s in it for me?”, kind of.
MOGENS MAHLER: This climate here on the island is a little bit better because we have the sea all the way around.
GEORGE NEGUS: Mogens Mahler, a Christmas tree grower and seller, is one Samsinger who’s privately making a decent kroner as a carbon-busting convert. As well as his clever Chrissie tree operation, in summer, Mogens grows strawberries and blackberries – two very seasonal crops. But, now, he can make money all year round from this – a massive tower with revolving blades.)
MOGENS MAHLER: 10 years ago. In August 2010, it’s 10 years old. So, it has been a good investment.
The base of the wind turbine takes up only a few square metres of his land. A sea breeze comes in, a turbine turns, and you make money. It’s a return literally blowin’ in the wind.
MOGENS MAHLER: In farming, there you have to make something yourself. You have to be there. If you have to make money on farming, you have to be a good farmer, but this does it itself. Of course, I have to be good having the right service on it, making the right contracts with selling the energy.
GEORGE NEGUS: Has it all come about because of the fact that Samso is the energy island? It’s all part of that whole wonderful scheme, isn’t it?
MOGENS MAHLER: We sometimes have a dream here, on Samso, and maybe we can live that dream out – that we could sell our energy to some companies who want to buy really green energy. So that we could get, of course, a little bit more money for it but then we should make a deal with these companies so this extra money that we get we use them again to make green energy, so it drives around, like in a circle. We don’t just put them in and buy red wine for them, that we’ll then use them again to make new energy.
GEORGE NEGUS: So it does look like your dream is coming true, though?
MOGENS MAHLER: Yeah. In a way, it does. I can also say it’s one of the best investments.
GEORGE NEGUS: So, do you see yourself as an environmentalist, or a farmer, or a businessman?
MOGENS MAHLER: Part of everything.
GEORGE NEGUS: All three? All three. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to be here and share this with you, it really is.
OK, I know what you’re thinking, this carbon reduction idealism stuff is all very well, but what about all those cars driving around Samso’s country roads and villages, including the one yours truly’s been getting about in? Aren’t they running on nasty, carbon-belching petrol?
They certainly are. But the Samsingers insist their emissions are more than offset by a massive wind farm just off the island’s coast.
GEORGE NEGUS: The wind turbines, offshore and onshore, are obviously vital to the whole exercise?
SOREN HERMANSEN: They are vital. They are the biggest producers and they are – that is the number one technology in supporting the rural community to the system. We are harvesting the wind and then we are producing green electricity and we feed it into the national system.
GEORGE NEGUS: Because you do have about 40% more than you need?
SOREN HERMANSEN: More than that. I think we have 60%, 70% more than we need.
This is Samso, the energy island, in one shot – two worlds, not colliding, but actually working together. Here to see it happen are these guys. They are from China. It’s fair to say that tiny Samso, with its big ideas, has caught not just ours, but the world’s attention.
Every year, they tell us, hundreds of climate change policy makers and activists visit this so-called ‘Isle of Plenty’.
CHINESE TRANSLATOR: So, you use the pipes to transfer this power to different areas?
FARMER: Yes, you have In the global scheme of things, of course, Samso’s carbon footprint is insignificant. Its 4,000-plus rabid energy renewers are far too few to save the planet. But there’s definitely heaps of carbon reduction tricks to be learned from Samso’s amazing 10-year turn-around. What a remarkable place Samso was – carbon neutral and all that – and what about its people! In fact, it made me wonder whether the summit next month should be held in Samso, not in Copenhagen.