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Blown away by Samsř, a Danish island powered by wind

May 9, 2016

After living in Denmark for three months, there are a few things that I’ve come to view as uniquely Danish. Open-faced sandwiches, better known as smorrebrød; hot dog carts (or pølsevogn); and a constant flow of bikes down every major street. However, there’s one characteristic of Denmark that isn’t quite as pleasant – the wind.

I’m not talking about little gusts here and there that catch you off guard. I’m talking about one constant gust, strong enough to force even the most experienced Danish bikers off of the saddle. There are times when I am biking to class that the wind is so strong it becomes nearly impossible to pedal. Not only is the wind robust, but it comes from every direction, meaning that no matter which direction I’m heading, I always seem to be biking straight into these powerful gusts.

It’s not surprising, then, that this chilly little country uses its ever-blowing, naturally occurring resource as a way to become energy independent – today, 40 percent of Denmark’s energy is supplied by the wind. Even though Denmark isn’t completely wind-powered (yet), one small island located between the two major landmasses of Denmark (Zealand and Jutland) has become completely energy independent, all thanks to the rushing air that knocks me off of my bike from time to time.

Samsø is an island with two
major exports: wind and
potatoes. With 10 offshore
turbines and 11 on land,
this little island produces
110 percent of its needed
energy from the wind.

Samsø, 112 square kilometers of mostly cultivated farmland, is an island with two major exports: wind and potatoes. With 10 offshore turbines and 11 on land, this little island produces 110 percent of its needed energy from the wind. The excess 10 percent is a source of revenue for the island, and some is even exchanged for medical attention (the island lacks a hospital). This surplus also equates to all 3,806 residents of Samsø each having a carbon footprint of negative 12 tons.

These residents, however, aren’t a bunch of young hipsters concerned about the environment. The island is made up predominately of older males, many of whom are farmers, making it a surprising candidate to earn the title of “Sustainable Energy Island.”

In 1997, however, this is exactly what happened. Samsø won a contest sponsored by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Energy, granting the community the unique opportunity to become the first island to be powered completely by renewable power, as well as Denmark’s showcase for sustainability. But without any funding from the government, tax breaks, or technical expertise, it was unclear how this small island with its roots in agriculture would eventually become a destination for sustainability-minded people throughout the world.

The view from the top of a wind turbine in Samsø Denmark
The view from the top of a wind
turbine in Samsø, Denmark.

Through many community meetings and some free beer, Soren Hermansen, a Samsø native, cultivated a positive attitude around this new source of energy and effectively convinced the islanders to trade their oil-burning furnaces for regional heating systems powered by straw and woodchips, and to give up small tracts of farmland to begin erecting turbines.

Even though cars and farm machinery on the island are still powered by oil, the fact that this island gets all of its energy for electricity and heating from naturally occurring resources is an amazing feat – one that gives Samsø the infrastructure necessary to become entirely independent of fossil fuels if electricity-based transportation becomes a viable option.

Samsø’s story can inspire communities everywhere by showing that no matter the political views or socioeconomic status of a region, sustainable energy sources and infrastructure can be implemented to make an area sustainable, both environmentally and economically.

Madeline Fischer is a junior at UW-Madison from Blanchardville, Wis., double majoring in environmental studies and life sciences communication. While studying abroad for the spring semester in Copenhagen, Denmark she will document her experience on a student blog, Bringing Bæredygtighed Back.