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Life After Fossil Fuels

On a tiny island off the Danish coast, life after oil is working out just fine.

By Rob Dunn and Darin Mickey
Jun 26, 2004 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:25 AM


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The people of Samsø have seen the future, and it is a wood-burning stove. Six years ago, the 4,400 residents of this diminutive Danish island made an ambitious pledge that they would learn to give up fossil fuels by 2008. Now they have largely closed in on the goal, primarily by embracing smart updates of traditional ways to tap renewable energy sources—sun, wind, biological gases, and wood.

The stove in question is actually a huge, state-of-the-art furnace that pipes hot water to about 180 nearby houses in the coastal village of Nordby. Above it, a giant scoop hangs motionless over an empty chute, its opposing claws clenched shut, a bundle of wood chips in their grasp. On a silent cue from the machinery’s digital brain, the claws release, and the chips tumble down to sustain a fire burning at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire heats water; the water heats the houses.

After emptying, the scoop slides along a track on the ceiling, stops above an open container, reaches down to grab more wood, then whirs back to its ready position. On a cold winter’s day, the stove might consume seven tons of chips harvested from a forest on the other end of the island. Now, however, it is spring and merely brisk, so the fire’s daily appetite has dropped to something more like a steady nibble.

Some of the heat dissipates in transmission, but the design is 80 to 90 percent efficient, says Lasse Lillevang, a consultant and the former planner for Samsø Energiselskab, a company that organizes and provides consulting for renewable energy projects on the island. “When you cool down the smoke, you have condensation containing a lot of energy. So the plant is actually 105 percent efficient,” he says. Outside, Lillevang points to the cloud billowing from the smokestack. “It is only steam; you can see how white the smoke is,” he says. “That’s because the burning process is so clean.”

Next to the smokestack are 20 rows of solar panels, 10 panels to a row—all told, 27,000 square feet of them planted in a muddy field. In summertime the panels will supplant wood chips as Nordby’s sole energy source for heating water.

As goes Nordby, so goes Samsø. The slip of land, just twice the size of Manhattan, embarked on this experiment in 1998 after winning the Danish government’s contest to designate a national Renewable Energy Island. Consultants from the mainland descended to remake the island’s entire energy supply, not just for heat and hot water but also for electricity and transportation—about 135 gigawatt-hours a year. The planners envisioned large-scale projects, including bigger wind farms and more heating plants run on renewable fuels. Improved efficiency and conservation were also in order. Residents would have to replace their old cars, and they would have to renovate their homes and businesses to cut heat loss. Farmers would have to find more efficient ways to work their fields. In all, it would cost more than $22,000 per person.

Danish energy planners saw the project as a clever device for marketing the feasibility and desirability of renewable energy. And Samsø’s successes provide a showcase with international implications. The Bush administration has stated a desire to reduce American reliance on oil imported from unsavory suppliers; John Kerry has declared that “no young American in uniform ought to ever be held hostage to America’s dependence on oil from the Middle East.” Meanwhile, American oil consumption continues to increase. Likewise, the country’s thirst for electricity is expected to grow by 50 percent by 2025. Renewable energy sources could help plug these gaps: A U.S. Department of Energy study declared in 2001 that renewables could meet 20 percent of the nation’s electricity supply by 2020 at a cost increase to consumers of just over 4 percent.

The Samsø experiment also offers a blueprint for getting clean, reliable power into small and isolated communities, a problem across the United States. A dozen years ago, Tom Stanton, an analyst for the Michigan Public Service Commission, helped devise a plan to wean Beaver Island, in Lake Michigan, off erratic and expensive power from the mainland through conservation, efficiency, and locally generated renewables. “It turns out that a place like Beaver Island exists in every utility service area in the world,” says Stanton. “Some communities are just going to be more expensive to serve.” The project faded after a few years, not for a want of technology but for a lack of local leadership. Boosters on Beaver Island had no model to follow. Now they do.

If America is a nation of SUVs, Denmark is one of bicycles. This is evident immediately upon arriving in Copenhagen: Hundreds of two-wheelers are parked at the central train station, and an army of cyclists cruise dedicated lanes on the city’s busiest avenues. Over the last three decades, the Danes have poured the equivalent of billions of dollars into research for improving green technologies and into subsidies to induce markets to embrace them. Today renewable energy sources, principally wind, generate roughly one-fifth of the country’s electricity.

Harnessing the wind is an old tradition. On Samsø, the first prominent landmark along the road leading from the harbor at Kolby Kås is a stout 19th-century windmill, an octagonal building with a shingled roof that tapers like a giant saltshaker to four crosshatched blades. A few miles away stands a far sleeker tower, only 25 years old but one of the first built in Denmark to generate electricity commercially. Wind power has since become one of the country’s biggest exports. Most of the wind turbines now sprouting in fields around the United States were made in Denmark by companies such as Vestas Wind Systems and NEG Micron.

Understandably, Samsø Energiselskab thought first of wind power. Engineers proposed dotting the island with 15 turbines, each capable of generating 750 kilowatts an hour, to meet all the native electricity needs. But Samsø is a small, rustic island—just four miles across at its widest point, and 16 miles from Nordby in the north to Brattingborg, the estate at the southern end governed by a stately mansion with fairy-tale turrets and ivy crawling up its brick facade. In between, there are no highways, just narrow, usually empty lanes that wander through villages and along barely perceptible hillocks and fields that encircle centuries-old farmhouses in stucco and half-timber. Nobody was surprised when some residents, led by Jytte Tønnesen, a grave digger at the church in the village of Onsbjerg, objected to the introduction of so many modern windmills to their pastoral island.

Rapid advances in turbines assuaged some of the concerns. Samsø Energiselskab found it could install 11 newer, 1-megawatt machines to do more work than 15 of the old 750-kilowatt mills. Although they are visible across much of the island, the wind turbines do not really mar the landscape. They are nearly silent, unless you stand directly beneath them. They even have a kind of modernist beauty, their sleek, symmetrical ranks facing the breeze in unison, their rotors swooping down and rising in a mesmerizing cadence.

Samsø Energiselskab also built support by giving locals an economic stake in the undertaking. Nine of the turbines are owned by farmers who tend the adjacent land. The remaining two are owned by a cooperative of 450 residents, who paid anywhere from $500 to $30,000 for their shares. Einar Mortensen, a big-jowled man with a thin mustache and short, unkempt hair, coordinated the investment. He produces an annual three-day summer music festival on the island, and he is passionate about holding on to local jobs. “We want to continue being a living island and a living society,” he says. “For each share, you get 500 kroner [about $80] a year. After six and a half years, you’ve been paid back.”

Part of the reason the numbers work so well is that the Danish government requires utilities to buy wind-generated electricity at a price that is normally above market rates. This effectively raises the total price of electricity across Denmark. (National taxes elevate the prices considerably more, however.) On the other hand, the money Samsø spends on electricity—about $5 million a year—now stays at home instead of being used to import energy from the larger neighboring islands.

The windmills started spinning in 2000 and generated enough electricity to meet all the island’s needs and send a surplus to the mainland. Nonetheless, in 2002, Samsø erected 10 more turbines, each more than twice as powerful as the originals, arrayed in a gentle arc two and a half miles off the island’s southern coast. The offshore wind farm, which went online early last year, helps the island fulfill its pledge to rely entirely on renewable energy. All of the electricity is exported to offset the 53 gigawatt-hours of energy Samsø uses for transportation. This is an accounting trick of sorts so the island generates as much energy from renewables as it consumes in nonrenewable diesel and gasoline.

Although three organic farmers on the island plan to convert their diesel-powered cars to run on the rapeseed oil they harvest, everyone else relies on conventional fuels and probably will continue to for a long time. Transportation is one area where renewable energy is not close to competitive. Surplus wind-generated electricity might eventually be used to create hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles,but that technology is many years away. Aage Johnsen Nielsen, the director of Samsø Energiselskab, makes no apologies for the compromise. “We couldn’t change the island in 10 years,” he says. “Instead we suggested that we could build this offshore wind farm that, in the short term, would compensate for transportation energy and, in the long term, could supply it.”

Erecting windmills was easy compared with replacing the coal and oil that heated Samsø’s buildings. The island’s principal work is farming; 80,000 pigs a year are raised on the island. Idealistic energy planners looking at the expanse of filthy pens immediately saw an untapped resource. A biogas plant could digest that manure, along with clover grass, and extract concentrated methane to power a generator and provide heat and electricity for about 200 homes. Although some Danish companies have brought biogas technology to market, the project stalled after the government decided not to establish price supports for electricity derived from biogas. Another innovative proposal, to tap into waste heat created by the ferries that run back and forth between the island and the mainland, got shot down on practical grounds: Ensuring a fail-safe backup in case a ferry failed to show up would have been prohibitively expensive.

So Lillevang and his fellow planners turned to simpler techniques. Supported by a $500,000 grant from the Danish Energy Agency and another million dollars in loans, Samsø Energiselskab began building in June 2002 a second plant to generate heat by burning straw—the stalks and husks of corn harvested on the island. It opened that November, early and under budget, in time for the cold season. The success of the plant, in the village of Onsbjerg, then sparked the construction of yet another small straw-burning plant.

When that plant is completed later this year, 70 percent of the townspeople on Samsø will consume renewables-powered district heat. For people who live in the countryside, the energy office suggested solar heaters and stoves that burn wood chips. But even with generous subsidies, public acceptance foundered, says Søren Hermansen, who runs the island’s affiliated energy and environment office. He turned to local blacksmiths for help. “We call specialists from the mainland and invite everybody to a meeting at the hotel,” he says. “We offer a glass of beer, a coffee, and everybody sits there for two or three hours and listens to the new stuff from the energy office. Private people like to listen to our vision, but when it comes to action, they talk to their ordinary tradesmen.” By 2003 residents of Samsø had installed more than 90 new solar heat systems and 250 chip burners, often used in tandem, as well as 30 heat pumps that draw thermal energy from the soil. More than a quarter of the island’s rural residences—and two-thirds of the island as a whole—are now heated with renewable energy.

But a quarter of the island’s population consists of pensioners who can neither afford the up-front costs of installing green technology nor wait for the payback. For them, Samsø’s planners preach the simplest methods of stretching the island’s resources: insulation, new appliances, and relatively cheap ways to reduce energy demand. Thirty years after they first came into vogue, efficiency solutions remain remarkably underexploited, says Amory Lovins, CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. By his calculations, the United States could save a billion dollars a day in energy costs—roughly half its total expenditure—through more efficient use. “This is our biggest, cheapest, fastest energy resource, and we ought to be doing a lot more of it,” he says. On Samsø, the preaching is finding converts: About 45 percent of low-income pensioner households have invested in energy saving.


Even though our per capita income is just 16 percent greater, the average American consumes three times as much energy as the average Dane, much of which is a reflection of lifestyles in the United States. Tax policies encourage Danes to conserve.


  • Energy fraction supplied by renewables (excluding hydropower): 13.2%

  • Electricity cost (1 kilowatt-hour): $0.23

  • Annual household electricity consumption (kWh/square foot): 3.4

  • Per capita greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 equivalent): 9.9 tons

  • Per capita income: $30,290

United States

  • Energy fraction supplied by renewables (excluding hydropower): 3.3%

  • Electricity cost (1 kilowatt-hour): $0.08

  • Annual household electricity consumption (kWh/square foot): 6.8

  • Per capita greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 equivalent): 19.8 tons

  • Per capita income: $35,060

After six years, Samsø has cut its gross energy consumption by one-fourth. By the energy office’s estimates, the island has also reduced nitrous oxide emissions by 41 percent, cut sulfuric oxide emissions by 71 percent, and eliminated more than its share of carbon dioxide emissions. This is, realistically, about as far as Samsø can go with current funding and technology. So Hermansen has become something of a green-energy proselytizer. He recently visited the United States and Japan and made the rounds in Brussels to build support for the European Union’s Energy Center and Energy Academy. The EU has initiated a campaign to identify 100 communities that could replicate the Samsø experiment, part of a campaign to produce 12 percent of Europe’s energy from renewable sources by 2010.

Ironically, the Danish government seems to be abandoning Samsø’s vision just as other countries are embracing it. Elections in 2001 brought to power a conservative government that has slashed most of the country’s funding and other incentives for renewable energy. The new government concluded that renewables cost too much. Samsø’s impressive gains, for instance, have cost Danish taxpayers about $4 million in direct aid (out of a total program cost of about $65 million).

Although improvements in wind and other renewables have required significant subsidies, the investments pale in comparison to the funds spent on more traditional energy sources. For example, the U.S. government has given the nuclear power industry about $145 billion in support over the last 50 years. Fossil fuel industries collect some $4 billion a year in tax breaks and other aid, reports Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group of nonpartisan budget watchdogs—and that figure doesn’t even take into account hidden forms of support, such as the Pentagon’s jet aircraft research and development that led to efficient new natural gas turbines. One version of the Republican energy bill rejected by Congress last year promised $37 billion to coal, oil, and nuclear power over the next 10 years, six times the proposed spending on renewables. Yet despite the relatively small tax credits given to producers, wind electricity is now often competitive with that supplied from fossil fuels in the United States, Lovins says. Other renewable energy sources likewise show steadily falling costs.

At the same time a growing number of state regulators and industry experts think America’s grid ought to be more decentralized—that it should look more like Samsø’s. Renewable energy, which is conducive to distributed, small-scale generation, could help here as well. The United States, like other developed nations, relies primarily on huge central power plants linked to each other on a national grid. Central power plants stopped seeing efficiency improvements about 30 years ago because of thermodynamic and production limitations, says Richard Hirsh, a technology historian at Virginia Tech who studies the country’s electric power systems. Moreover, massive, complex, interconnected power lines are vulnerable to sudden disruptions, as became starkly apparent last August, when a switching error in Ohio cut off electricity to 40 million people from Michigan and Ontario to Connecticut and Quebec. “A major cause of more and bigger blackouts,” says Lovins, “is building more and bigger power lines and plants.”

Samsø is small enough that its renewable energy project could succeed largely on the perseverance of a handful of dedicated people who had some institutional backing and the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Building political consensus among 290 million Americans is a greater challenge, but bits of the Samsø philosophy are taking root in state legislatures. Already 37 states support net metering, which allows utility customers who produce their own electricity to sell it back to the grid. Unlike the federal government, which funnels wind-energy tax credits principally to large utilities, Minnesota fosters small-scale investment in wind with direct payments to small producers. In 2003 the state added 228 megawatts of wind power, more than 35 percent of which comes from small local owners. With a total of 563 megawatts of wind generation, Minnesota is now the third largest wind-energy state, after California and Texas.

Grand proposals to wean the United States from fossil fuels have long come across as absurdly romantic or hopelessly impractical. If we want to transform our patterns of energy supply and demand, perhaps we would do better to proceed as Denmark has—one island at a time.

Can Green Power Make it in the U.S.?

The United States is far from embracing a Samsø-style commitment to decentralized green energy. Last year the Senate passed legislation mandating a 10 percent standard, but the House opposed the plan and Senate Republicans agreed to keep it out of the energy bill this year.

When the purse strings do open, they tend to support projects with well-defined constituencies: farmers whose corn can be distilled into ethanol to mix with gasoline, for instance. The wind-energy tax credit, which has led to a sharp increase in wind-generated electricity, benefits mostly companies that earn income from other sources. New wind farms therefore reinforce the current distribution pattern of central power plants linked together on a national grid.

At the same time, private companies are exploring more innovative options, such as anaerobic digesters, which convert animal manure into methane that can run a generator. Microgy of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has licensed Danish digester technology and, without subsidies, started building plants on five Wisconsin dairies. The farms have between 800 and 1,200 cows, each fueling a 775-kilowatt generator. The company’s chairman, Joe Cresci, plans to generate 25 megawatts in Wisconsin and has an agreement to develop 15 megawatts for Vermont.

R. M.

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