Community Power: Samsø Island’s Transformation from Crisis, to Experiment, to Model of Sustainability

At the center of human endeavor is a need to connect. Relationships of necessity form societies to ensure survival, providing security against natural forces and the fulfillment of social drivers. Alongside the acceleration of technologies spurred by the industrial revolution, a global community has emerged, where the exchange of goods, energy and ideas continue to drive growth. But with that exchange come negative externalities — environmental costs that scientists claim will take a toll on vulnerable populations around the world. The threat of climate change to island communities and to the global economy has taken center stage – and the world is starting respond. Among the viable responses to this threat is the tale of Samsø Island and its Energy Academy, which has become an innovative, educational, change-making place both physically and digitally.

Samsø Island:

Samsø Island is a small island 30 km long and 7 km wide resting off the coast of Denmark and home to 4,000 inhabitants.

Following the Kyoto Protocol meeting of 1997, Samsø began its transformation from oil dependency to carbon neutrality. It accomplished this feat by harnessing the power of the wind and the community.

Today, Samsø Island boasts the title of being the first carbon-negative community in the world. The continued momentum for the movement is thanks to the ongoing efforts of Søren Hermansen and the Energy Academy, a non-profit organization on the island directed by Hermansen. Hermansen credits this success to a bottom-up communications approach, which enabled a shift of community attitude from conservative “NIMBYism” (Not In My Back Yard), to opportunistic and collaborative “IMBYism”.


Kyoto Protocol

On December 11, 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by participating countries at a meeting in Kyoto Japan. Its targets included:

1)    Emission reduction targets of member countries

2)    Establishing a Greenhouse Gas Trading Program

3)    Committing to holding future meetings to set penalties and regulations of trading.

The island nation of Denmark pledged itself as a member country committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 21% by 2012 and immediately set to work to find solutions. In 1998 a competition was announced by the Danish Ministry of Environment seeking a community that could transform itself over the next decade from fossil fuel dependency to 100% renewable energy. The Municipality of Samsø Island sent in a proposal and won the project, termed the RE Island Project.
Solving a Localized, Island-based Problem

Prior to winning the competition, Samsø Island had begun to see a diminishing economy. The local slaughterhouse had just closed down, resulting in 100 dislocated workers. A few years prior, the last of the cooperative dairies shut down as production moved to a bigger dairy. The credos of the geography and the dairyman was losing relevance in an increasingly globalized economy. Much of the younger generation was losing interest in the island, flocking to Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen to pursue high school, since the island itself did not have one. The trend was to stay in the city after relocating for school, and Samsø Island itself was losing relevance.

By embracing the competition and the ambition to become a beacon of renewable energy, Hermansen says that the idea was “to create a green business development that would generate jobs and local development of new enterprises and businesses.” The goal was to become sustainable – to go green from a practical perspective.

Challenge: Conservative Buy-In for Radical Change

As a rural community that depended upon the network of local farmers, Samsø Island’s residents were initially resistant to change. The land itself was a source of income and identity, representing a traditional way of life in which inhabitants depend on one another and knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. Such a community mindset values local, place-based knowledge. Thus, Samsings (as the Islanders are called) were skeptical of top-down projects initiated by a distant, disconnected and centralized administration.

At an initial community meeting to discuss plans for the renewable shift, starting with district heating, it appeared only outsiders were onboard — the “hippies” who had moved to the island from the city. This further illustrated the idea that the renewable energy nonsense was a city-led imposition. Additionally, change threatened existing jobs. A blacksmith at the meeting, tasked with maintaining the oil-fired boilers for a living, protested the idea and inspired fear of change.  

To enact radical change, Søren Hermansen realized that the alienation locals felt toward the project’s vision had to be resolved and that embracing the community mindset was the key to success.

Born and raised on Samsø Island, Hermansen was one of the few who returned after leaving to pursue education. Hermansen recognized that getting community support was not merely a challenge to overcome — it was a key opportunity to ensure the success of the island. By incorporating this local, place-based mindset into the project goals, a key growth strategy emerged: community owned power.

Energy plants burning fossil fuels and nuclear power stations pose threats that must be managed by a centralized administration. But renewable energy can be managed by small communities. Renewable energy could be part of the island’s self-governed identity.

While the sentimental value was important — the financial argument was a clear motivator. The math had been done demonstrating the savings that could be had by local energy generation. Danish policies were also in favor of the project. Feed-in tariffs and net metering allowed for income generation from excess energy. But the question as to who these savings would benefit was up for debate. In order to get public support, Hermansen had to answer the public’s central question: “What’s in it for me?”

Opportunity: Cooperative Generation

Hermansen knew that in a community like Samsø, opinions were formed and decisions were made well in advance to formal meetings. He began making phone calls and having coffee with the community’s opinion leaders, whom he calls the “blacksmiths”. First, he worked on the district heating angle — orchestrating working relationships by asking the community what was possible and what opportunities they could find.

Hermansen not only asked the blacksmith if it was possible to swap out all of the homes’ boilers for heat exchangers, but whether the blacksmith could identify a business opportunity for himself.  The answer was yes. Hermansen asked the engineers how much it would cost and how much it would save. He asked the farmers if they would supply the straw traditionally burned on the field and they replied yes, for a price. He asked the homeowners if paying a lower energy bill was okay. Again the answer was yes. District heating could be supplied locally, reducing the costs associated with imported oil. Hermansen also contacted the newcomer environmentalists and asked them to keep a low profile until the rest of the community had taken an interest in the project. He understood that cultural vouching and having the support of key opinion leaders would be crucial to building trust. At the next meeting, a working group had already been formed, the “hippies” contained their excitement until after the community-leaders-turned-project-leaders made their speeches, and the RE Island project became a community project.

Hermansen had initiated change from within — a change the community could get behind. He then also began holding open meetings where he offered free beer to spread the message that wind turbines were not foreign and threatening. After all, smaller windmills had a place in history and had served the family farm for centuries. Hermansen recognized the community’s sentiments and communicated a vision in which the community was central. Energy generation could be internal and the community could take the responsibility of the system back — creating local jobs and strengthening local connections.

Rather than imposing wind turbines on the island via a “one size fits all” growth model, Samsø Island’s transformation was made possible through community listening and involvement. Research showed that district heating was an immediate money saver and that the wind turbines would pay back costs in eight years. After being presented with the math, residents were given the opportunity to buy shares in the turbines, made possible by generous bank loans on a ten year pay-back plan.

Shares in turbines not only represent community members’ vested interest in the wealth generated, but also an empowerment of the people by granting them a voice in how the island’s landscape would take shape. Town hall meetings were held for each decision, from situating a windmill to making a repair. Although not all stakeholders showed up to every meeting, the option to be included in the process was there and trust was established. The project was local.

Campaigns were conducted to provide knowledge and practical skills that would put more money into the pockets of Samsings. The campaign lectures taught the public about renewable energy technology and how savings could be generated from district heating and conservation of energy practices. The messaging was intended to inspire behavioral changes in the target audience, Samsings, by communicating benefits to both community and household. Residents could receive economical benefits from saving energy and from their investments in the new wind turbines.

Samsø Island met and exceeded the goals set forth in the RE Island project. In 10 years Samsø had become 100 percent self-sufficient through renewable energy generation and had began exporting excess renewable energy to mainland Denmark. In 2007, using proceeds from energy sold, Samsø’s Energy Academy was built with Hermansen leading the way as its director. The Energy Academy was created to ensure Samsø’s progress could be documented and shared with the rest of the world. Although the website was already in existence, the domain finally had a physical home.

The building itself espouses the principles of sustainability in practice. Well insulated and equipped with solar panels and energy saving electrical fittings, the Energy Academy hosts workshops, exhibitions, and courses about renewable energy. It it also responsible for maintaining a large database of shared community knowledge. All operations and decisions regarding sustainability on Samsø Island are transparent and documented, reaffirming the community-oriented message.

Proactive Messaging: Samsø Energy Academy’s decade of innovative digital projects

With the opening of the Energy Academy’s doors in 2007 came the implementation of a new digital design strategy for the promotion of sustainable living, which would serve to make Samsø relevant to the rest of the world. The Energy Academy’s website had only 250 users in 2005, but by 2017 it has increased to 5000 digital members, offering 11,000 downloadable files on its web database.

In 2008 the Energy Academy implemented a survey and test course for 10,000 school students and continued to collaborate with universities to develop teaching methods and promote visiting Samsø Energy Academy for a lifecycle learning course. The Energy Academy began mapping big data from Denmark’s renewable energy infrastructure in 2010.

In 2011 it implemented TV channels via YouTube and Vimeo and launched a new media strategy to promote the submission of live images by users. It worked to upgrade its local community strategy in 2012, entitled “2.0”, and trained employees while reevaluating the global network of users engaging with the Energy Academy’s digital platforms. In testing its website, it found that users were not reading its longer articles, informing future content creation. The “Energy Institute” database was set up and made accessible in 2015, and the Energy Academy began studying what social media users were following and for what purposes.

In 2016 it started using big data for teaching purposes and for continued environmental scanning in order to identify energy reducing opportunities. The website was revamped, offering infographics and messaging in the form of a new guide entitled: “Local Pioneer Guide Ready for the Digital User.” That same year Samsø Energy Academy won the Nordic Environment Prize for innovative digital solutions that promote sustainable development and lifestyle. In 2017, Samsø Energy Academy joined a new global digital membership association “On Choice” to begin offering online courses.

Since Samsø Energy Academy is physically isolated on an island in the middle of Denmark and inaccessible by car, its digital strategy is a crucial growth area for the Academy and the island itself. The Energy Academy started using digital tools to investigate what the global population knew about ​​sustainable living. It discovered that the population was inspired and motivated by facts and real stories about technology and people who make things happen.

The Energy Academy continually conducts research and analyzes big data across many digital platforms with the intention of reaching more diverse populations than its own islanders. It serves to allow digital users a world away the opportunity to learn from Samsø’s experience.  Today, 80% of the Energy Academy’s contact with the outside world is via its digital platforms, which communicate Samsø as a model society in practice. After online users learn about Samsø’s journey, many pursue meetings on Samsø Island and with the Energy Academy, sometimes out of sheer fandom and sometimes out of a desire to initiate a similar model in their own communities.

Samsø Island Today:

Through the use of wind and solar, the Samsø community has cooperatively built enough community owned energy infrastructure that the island produces more clean energy than energy consumed per capita. The total grid infrastructure of Samsø today amounts to roughly $56 million, with over 70% locally owned by Samsø citizens. Samsø utilized proven crowdsourcing models to have a cooperative ownership structure for its energy grid and markets, allowing for something similar to an energy “commons” for its citizens.

Samsø has 10 land based windmills that produce 100% of its energy needs and 11 offshore windmills that produce enough energy to offset the private petrol powered autos and any remaining oil-powered heat generation on the island. The island is therefore carbon negative and is a model for many other communities to try to replicate.

Because of this positioning, Samsø’s Energy Academy has continued to take advantage of the power of global communications. The message of community building and resiliency has attracted attention from all over the world. Samsø’s Energy Academy receives more than 5,000 visitors per year, including politicians, ambassadors, journalists, researchers and students. Hermansen travels to deliver Ted Talks and Keynotes, and when not traveling, meets with visitors to the Energy Academy. Communities like those existing on Japanese islands and in Australian provinces are currently working under Samsø’s guidance to envision similar place-based cooperative models.

The next phase for Samsø Island and the Energy Academy is Samsø 100, a project aimed at onboarding 100 small communities that pledge to embark on their own Samsø story, drawing on Samsø’s wisdom and sharing their experiences while forming a working model to become self-sustaining. As the project grows, so too will the larger community of like minded sustainability builders.

Lessons from Samsø:

Samsø’s success can largely be attributed to the early promotion of community involvement and thus widespread community support. This involvement resulted in working groups, community ownership of facilities, cooperative and private investment, creative uses of local resources (the farmers’ straw) and a committed local organizer whom residents could understand and trust.

In order to communicate and generate value for the local community, the project to transform Samsø took approaches that:

  • Were geographically targeted, place-based
  • Listened to the community and communicated appropriate offerings to all stakeholders
  • Involved existing opinion leaders, such as local blacksmiths and engineers
  • Were led by community groups
  • Drew upon sociological models of behavior, with recognition of local social norms and opportunities to nudge and trigger widespread, community-wide behavior change from the ground up.

After the success of Samsø’s transformation into the world’s first 100% renewable energy, carbon negative island, Samsø’s Energy Academy kept the momentum going by turning the experiment into an educational opportunity and a unique offering to the global community – especially to island economies currently dependent upon imports. Continued research publications, interviews and real-life success stories are communicated by the Energy Academy’s robust website that connects the small island to the larger world.

Bigger Pictures are Made of Smaller Collaborative Ones

The belief held by Hermansen and Samsø Energy Academy is that a resilient community takes responsibility for its commons by localizing its physical assets — the generation of power, food, and elements that enable circular economies, while globalizing its ideological pursuits — the participation in and exchange of innovative ideas. On a mission to continue to inspire community-led organization, Samsø’s Energy Academy has become a model for the world, connecting not only local community members to each other, but like-minded groups throughout the global community. In empowering a collection of local communities to responsibly develop place-based sustainable infrastructure, the hope is that the global commons will once again become resilient and respected.  


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