Blowing Off the Grid

  • 2015-12-30
  • Nautilus

The story began with Svend Auken, our brave Minister for the Environment,” says Soren Hermansen, who runs the Energy Academy on the Danish island of Samsø, an emerald comma in the Kattegat Sea. “When he returned from the United Nations climate change conference in 1997, he announced, ‘Now we need to start the green revolution in Denmark.’ That was very brave and very crazy.”

To get people excited about the idea, Auken set up a competition between municipalities for the best plan for going carbon-neutral in 10 years. When Samsø won, it became Denmark’s “renewable-energy island.” Hermansen, then a teacher, rock musician, and self-described rabble-rouser, took it upon himself to see that his native island lived up to its new name.
He brought consultants—and beer—to community meetings to try to convince his neighbors, many of them conservative farmers, to take up the cause. But the consultants weren’t getting through. So Hermansen sent them home. “Instead of telling people what they should do, I had to address the fear of change.” He told them that renewable technologies—wind turbines, solar arrays, biomass plants—would bring jobs and, better yet, money. Through subsidies, the government guaranteed a stable price for wind-generated power for 10 years, meaning investors could recoup their costs after seven or eight and start making a healthy profit.
That perked up their ears. Meeting by meeting, Samsingers—farmers, plumbers, schoolteachers, grocers—began to band together behind the project. When it finally got off the ground in the late 1990s, Samsø was putting 11 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. But by 2001, residents had cut their fossil fuel use by half. In 2003, they began exporting electricity to the mainland. Today the island produces from renewable sources 25 percent more energy than it consumes.
What makes Samsø’s story so remarkable, however, isn’t this fast transformation from carbon polluter to renewable-energy producer. It’s how it happened: Samsø owes its success not to a collective environmental idealism, but to its residents’ brass-tacks business sense.