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Local buy-in fuels low-carbon economy in Samsø

Samsø is a 114 km² Danish island 15 kilometres off the Jutland Peninsula with a community of approximately 4,000 people. In 1997, Samsø won a government competition to become a model renewable energy community. Today Samsø is generating more electricity from renewable energy than it consumes, resulting in a CO2 footprint of negative 12 tons annually per capita (the average CO2 footprint in Denmark 10 tons per capita). The majority of the renewable energy in Samsø is generated from its 21 wind turbines (11 onshore; 10 offshore). Together, these produce 34 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 34,000 homes. Samsø’s long-term goal is to become completely fossil-fuel free, phasing out oil, gas and coal by 2030.

From global goals to local outcomes

Samsø’s journey towards energy independence began in the 1990s, when Denmark’s Minister for the Environment—Svend Auken—returned from the Kyoto Climate talks enthusiastic about his country reducing its carbon emissions. In 1997, Auken announced a competition asking local communities or islands to present the most realistic and realisable plan for a complete transition to self-sufficiency through renewable energy. Samsø was announced the winner and received funding from the Danish Energy Authority to formulate the details of their master plan. When the project was initiated only 5% of the island’s electricity consumption was generated by local wind turbines.

A democratic approach and local ownership

A key lesson that can be learned from the Samsø project is that attempts to rapidly grow the clean energy economy are more likely to be successful when everyone in the community has the opportunity to participate and to benefit. Securing buy-in from residents was a core ambition of the project from the outset, with the citizens of Samsø engaged in the planning process and as investors in the wind turbines. Two organisations were established on the island: Samsø Energy Company, which ensured the technical part of the implementation, and Samsø Environment and Energy Office, which handled the public participation and awareness-raising. Nine of the 11 onshore wind turbines were bought by farmers and shares of the remaining two were bought by more than 500 people who live on the island or have summer homes there. Each onshore wind turbine was placed democratically. The island also has four district heating plant, using straw and wood chips from local forests and fields. One plant is owned by 240 households, one by a private farmer and two by the energy company NRGi.

Strong policy support and financial incentives

The initiation of Samsø’s renewable energy project in 1998 coincided with the shutting down of the local slaughterhouse, which employed 100 local residents on the island. Samsø’s economy, which was already experiencing challenges due to a low per capita income and an increasing number of people moving away from the island, was expected to be heavily impacted by the closure. Samsø Municipality, in cooperation with Aarhus County’s regional development department, saw the energy project as an opportunity to address this challenge and incorporated it into the regional development programme. The development of wind power on Samsø also aligned with the Danish national policy framework, which in the 1990s had a strong focus on the development of renewable energy. The Danish Energy Authority only provided partial financing for single projects. The project was able to draw on national subsidies for energy efficiency and renewable energy; however the main funding source was local authorities, private companies and citizens. A feed-in tariff provided to owners of wind turbines provided a solid economic incentive to invest in wind power.

Regional dimension

Alongside the sustainability and self-sufficiency elements, Samsø’s energy project has contributed to regional economic development by increasing tourism and creating local jobs and competence. The increase in tourism is largely due to the establishment of Samsø Energy Academy, an independent organisation established in November 2006 to support and promote Samsø’s transition to a zero emissions community. The Energy Academy attracts 5-6000 professional tourists to the island every year. The centre has also strengthened regional competitiveness by contributing to local competence development. A number of local craftsmen worked at the slaughterhouse while it was based on Samsø, mainly because of the competitive salary. When the slaughterhouse was shut down, these craftsmen were able to gain the skills they needed to gain equivalent employment in the energy project. On an international scale, Samsø has become a global example of how a sustainable community can be created through local ownership and community engagement.

Infographic on Samso's energy efficiency

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