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Windward island

An island of Denmark is run wholly on renewable energy. It has inspired other countries to follow suit, reports Kumkum Dasgupta.

india Updated: Nov 08, 2009 22:58 IST
Kumkum Dasgupta

The upper deck of the ship was deserted, except for a woman who sat huddled in a corner below the iron stairs, smoking.

The icy winds blew fiercely as the ship sliced through the emerald green waves towards Samsoe, a tiny dot of landmass in Kattegat — an arm of the North Sea in Europe.

As the ship neared Samsoe, the ‘monuments’ of modern Denmark — wind turbines — were visible, the first symbols of a social energy revolution sweeping the country — a revolution that India could emulate for a greener future.

India has been a late entrant in the field. And of late activity in this sphere has been flagging.

“It is in India’s benefit that it invests heavily in wind energy like China where in the last four months, 70 new wind energy companies have come up. In India, the sector needs a robust policy framework and better grid access,” D. Engel, President and CEO, Vestas, a market leader, told HT at a climate change meet in Copenhagen recently.

India with 9,645 MW slipped to fifth position in total wind power installed capacity in 2008, with China (12,210 MW) overtaking it by a huge margin in terms of both new capacity and total installed capacity.

“We urge the government to fast track proposals to introduce a National renewable energy policy to help the industry to make this happen for India,” said D.V. Giri, chairman, Indian Wind Turbine Manufacturers Association.

A little bit of push from the government always helps, as it did for Samsoe, which is located in the middle of Denmark, a country of 406 islands and peninsula Jutland. Thanks to its geographical position, the Viking explorers once used Samsoe as a meeting point. Today, it has become the centre of the country’s renewable energy (RE) programme. Thanks to a community initiative, the island now runs on 100 per cent RE.

That Samsoe’s contribution is part of Denmark’s larger plans of moving from fossil fuels to RE is clear: by 2025, Denmark wants at least 30 per cent of its total energy consumption to be powered by RE. As of today, RE accounts for over 15 per cent of the country’s gross energy consumption and about 27 per cent of the electricity that is generated.

Samsoe’s turnaround was not planned. In 1997, the Danish government announced a competition to convert energy systems of participating islands to RE in 10 years. Samsoe won the competition. But after the euphoria of winning, everything dissipated soon enough. Besides winning, the island received nothing — no prize money or special tax breaks, or even government assistance.

But there was one person who thought that the project was worth pursuing: Søren Hermansen, an environmental studies teacher at a local school.

A local boy, Hermansen knew the islanders were a tight-knit community. He turned this to his advantage: he showed up at community meetings, pointed to the blustery island’s untapped potential for wind power and the economic benefits of making the energy-independent. His hard work paid off: he convinced the community leaders and slowly others came on board.

In 1998, Samsoe Energy Company was set up to implement the 10-year energy conversion plan that included: erecting land-based and offshore wind turbines to cover electricity consumption; reduce total energy consumption and increase energy efficiency; adjust people’s pattern of behaviour; expand district heating combined with utilisation of biomass resources and expand the use of small wind turbines, solar panels for individual homes.

The residents responded wholeheartedly: they gave up their oil-burning furnaces for centralised plants that burned leftover straw or wood chips to produce heat and hot water. They bought shares in new wind turbines. Then they invested in 11 large land-based turbines, enough to meet their electricity needs.

They also supported the construction of 10 massive offshore turbines. Banks backed the resident-investors because the Danish government assured the price of electricity for 10 years.

“We care about the production, because we own the wind turbines. Every time they turn around, it means money in the bank. And, being part of it, we also feel responsible,” Hermansen said in an interview to a newspaper.

“The spin-offs have been enormous: the islanders not only saved on its fuel/electricity bills but Samsoe became an island for eco-tourism. Nearly, 60 million euros have been invested in the process,” said Jesper Kjems, communications officer, Samsoe Energy Academy. The Academy now offers a unique meeting point for businesses, academic institutions,
energy organisations and politicians.

Yet challenges remain: the ferries that link Samsoe with the mainland and the vehicles that run here still use fossil fuels and more 2,000 houses are too far away from the district heating systems. But because Samsoe produces more clean power than it consumes, and because their transportation energy consumption is compensated for by electricity produced from the wind turbines, the residents claim that they have cut their carbon footprint by 140 per cent. The island
produces 10 per cent more clean electricity than it uses, with the extra power fed back into the grid at a profit.

The island has also managed to inspire other countries. In March 2009, the Greek island of Agios Efstratios, or Ai Stratis, became the first island in the country and the Aegean to be entirely powered by renewable sources, including solar and wind energy.

The world is suffering from ‘climate nausea’. To overcome this, this island of 4,300 people has a small yet workable advice for everyone: ‘Think local, act local’.

When the world leaders meet in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, in December to thrash out who will pay how much for climate change mitigation and adaptation and try to fix responsibilities, this advice could prove handy.