How the Island of Samsø created a sustainable future

When we talk about game changers, we’re often thinking of a person who somehow rewrote the rules, or changed the way we understood and acted within a specific field. It’s hard to deny that certain people have been absolutely essential for bringing about a particular change – think Ghandi or Steve Jobs. But while a few act as game changers on a large scale, it is also possible for everyone to make changes within their own lives that can have a meaningful impact, especially when these changes are made collectively.

A prime example of large-scale game changing occurred on the Danish island of Samsø, where the whole community came together to transition to using 100% renewable energy. Denmark-based alternative business school Kaospilot has followed their journey with great interest, and several students from Kaospilot have also been involved. It only seemed natural, since the project embodied Kaospilot’s own mantra as well.

Kaospilot founder Uffe Elbæk once coined “Change the Game” as a tagline for the school. It was intended to serve as a calling, something to aspire to – but perhaps also as a standard for the work being done at the institution. As the founder of Fast Company, Alan Webber once pointed out during a meeting with Kaospilot that changing the game requires understanding the game, and being clear about which game it is that you are trying to revolutionize. In that case, Samsø’s ambition to become 100% sustainable couldn’t be any more on the mark than today, an age where concerns over climate change are more prevalent than ever. Samsø might be a small island, but their story is primed for global impact.

Although some met the challenge with initial skepticism, their doubts did not last long thanks to the leadership of Søren Hermansen. Born and bred on Samsø, Hermansen is well versed in the history of the island, the people, and their mentality, and knew how to reach out to them.

“Without Søren, this would never have succeeded,” says Jørgen Schjødt Jensen. Jensen is a traditional farmer, and runs his farm right beside the Energy Academy lead by Hermansen. The Academy is a non-profit energy organization that developed and continues to implement the renewable energy project.

About 4,000 to 6,000 guests from all over the world visit the Energy Academy annually, interested in learning how Samsø became sustainable and self-sufficient. The wind turbines and other technology are not only a good investment in terms of sustainability and energy savings, but they also encourage tourism and increase the overall prosperity on the island.

The transition to renewable energy took place over 10 years. The Danish government created a competition to see which municipality could become the first Danish community that worked entirely off of renewable energy. The people of Samsø made a detailed plan of which technologies would be used to make it happen, and they won the competition, along with the support of the Danish government.

“I have always worked in sustainability, so when this project came up it was obvious to me that I wanted to work on it” says Hermansen. He recalls how winning over the confidence of the public and securing the proper technology were the most challenging parts: “We had the expertise in the sustainability realm, so that was not so hard to get started. The real challenge was to get as many of the islanders on board as possible”

The result of the cumulative effort that went into the project is visible on the landscape itself. Ten off-shore wind turbines were built and are now compensating for the transport sector’s energy consumption. The island’s electricity consumption is now powered by 11 megawatts of on-land wind turbines, and space heating is supplied from heat pumps, biomass boilers, and solar thermal power. But before these turbines saw the light of day, many community meetings were held to get residents on board.

“We like to be transparent with our plans, especially when we implement new projects,” Hermansen explains. “It’s great that someone has a vision, but in reality, we need to address the concerns of the community. Every time we implement something new, we are met, of course, with some skepticism. But I think this helps us optimize the plans.”

Jensen, as a conventional farmer who took over the business from his parents, was one of the skeptics. He is now semi-retired, but up until five years ago he grew Samsø potatoes, famous in Denmark for their quality. He remembers when the first steps to the energy island project were taken: “I didn’t entirely oppose the project, but I definitely didn’t think that it was the golden egg it turned out to be! The sooner you get going on a project like this, the better it is, because then others can copy you.”

Jensen also points out that the islanders have a history of being the ones to make change first, and this is part of the reason why the project turned out so well.

Credit: Lotte Rystedt

Hermansen agrees. “Because we are on the outskirts a bit, people here have always known that they had to be a little bit better than the rest in order to keep up,” he says. “So the farmers have been ahead of the times with the development of their processes, for keeping cattle, and developing high quality crops.”

“We are somewhat famous now,” adds Jensen. “We grow good vegetables, and now we are also ‘the renewable energy island.’ Whenever I meet people from other places, they have heard about us ‘Samsings’ because of the project, and I’m proud of that.”

Hermansen appreciates that Jensen, along with the vast majority of the island’s 4,000 inhabitants, have embraced being “The Energy Island.” He emphasizes the support as a key to its success, and how, in order to really be a game changer, you need the goodwill of the whole community that you are trying to change. He also points out that it takes patience and time: “People, especially here, need to sleep on it before they jump into new initiatives. If you don’t give people enough time to think the decisions and changes through, there is a much larger risk of setbacks happening.”

Another hurdle can often come down to aesthetics. In other locations in Denmark, there have been great discussions when a wind turbine was to be placed on someone’s field or near private property, due to concerns over how it would look and sound. These discussions have also taken place on Samsø, but admittedly not to an extent that could endanger the project. One reason for this is the ownership of the turbines: some have private owners, while others are owned by a turbine association or the municipality.

“You could say that it is antisocial if one person has to look at the turbine right next to his property and someone else is earning money from it. This arrangement overcomes that. And for some reason, your own turbine just looks nicer,” Hermansen explains.

There have also been some unexpected outcomes from Samsø being envisioned as a fully “green” island, such as the island’s appeal to entrepreneurial, visionary people. Johannes Loeb, for example, is a young farmer who moved to Samsø to live out his dream of creating an organic, community-supported farm. He started his farm with a friend – a Kaospilot alumni – and they are currently in their second season. Loeb grows more than 100 different types of vegetables. The members of his community-supported farm pay in advance of the harvest, and then come by to pick up the crops once a week. The amount of vegetables they get to take home depends on the yield, and this system allows the farmer to share the risks with the community.

“It is great to be on an island where there is a culture for change,” he says. “I value the idealism here, and the willingness to do something different. When people see pioneers of a certain concept succeeding, they are more likely to take the leap into the unknown. We have experienced great support for our farm. We have 40 families who are part of our community, and they share in both the benefits and risks with us.”

Tamsin Fabricius is one of the members of Johannes’ farm, and works in marketing for ExamVision, a company that produces patented magnifying glasses on the island. Both Fabricius and Loeb leverage the island’s success story in order to sell more products, and it works well for both of their brands.

Hermansen is thrilled by the support that both island natives and newcomers have shown. His next challenge is figuring out how to position the island as an example for other communities to free themselves of fossil fuel usage. “I want Samsø to be a small part of a larger project. If this island can be an example, it can be scaled up to work for Denmark as a whole, spread to the rest of Scandinavia, and even to all of Europe or other parts of the world.”

To help accomplish this, Hermansen has given talks around the world in countries like Japan and lectures at MIT and Stanford University. But his work is far from over. “We have come a long way, and we have a lot farther to go.”

Jensen agrees that getting the word out is essential, and Hermensen is the ideal spokesperson to do this. “You need to be able to talk to all kinds of people in a language they understand with a task like this. And Søren can do that. Whether it’s the pope in Rome, or anyone of us.”

From the top of his hill, Jensen counts the wind turbines that he can see: 18. And he doesn’t mind the sight at all. “You see, that’s nature making electricity for us.”

the author

Lotte Rystedt

Lotte Rystedt is a journalist and communications officer at Kaospilot.

the author

Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius

Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius is the principal of Kaospilot.