Fantasy and reality, or, why Denmark is awesome: Lessons from Samsø

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Ballen Strand, Samsø
Ballen Strand, Samsø

Somewhat ironically, university history departments tend to group by geography: Canadianists, Americanists, Europeanists, and so on. But for the past three years, I’ve co-taught the introductory class in Dalhousie’s Environment, Sustainability and Society program. Here I’m free to share stories not just from Canada but from across the North Atlantic: especially Scandinavia, and especially Denmark.
In a cluster on New World agriculture, I show a 1754 map of St. Croix, a classic example of the ecological legacies of a plantation colony. When we talk about urban water supply, there’s the city of Århus’s ongoing project of daylighting its Viking-era river. And in a class on energy alternatives, I share the story of Samsø, a small island that between 1997 and 2007 converted entirely to renewable energies and cut its carbon footprint over 140% in the process.

At first, Samsø was simply a good-news story to share with idealistic first-year students, and another of my thinly veiled efforts to infuse the Canadian academy with Danish content. But this past summer I managed to slip away from a Canadian Studies conference at Århus long enough to visit.
For North Americans there’s something not altogether real about Scandinavian environmental initiatives. In 2007, for example, CBS News called Samsø “an ecological fantasy land.” Danes bike everywhere! They have wind turbines! Really, who does that?
But in exoticizing the story into a weird miracle cure or a uniquely Nordic lifestyle choice, we overlook their complex energy histories from the age of sail to the age of offshore, with numerous parallels and connections with our side of the Atlantic, and more importantly, the concrete lessons and policy applications we can take from their experience.’

 Helligåndskirken, Copenhagen
Helligåndskirken, Copenhagen

Samsø, for example, is relatively tiny: 114 square kilometres, with 4300 residents. But like another small island in the north Atlantic, it is famous for its thoroughly pastoral landscape; has an economy based on tourism and agriculture, especially – wait for it – potatoes; carries a cautious conservativism born in part of an aging population; is gifted with an inexhaustible supply of windpower, born of low-lying topography and surrounding water (over which wind increases speed); and over a ten-year period (Prince Edward Island in the 1970s; Samsø in the 2000s) led the world in renewable energy activity. There are actual connections, too: PEI’s “Ark bioshelter” was co-designed by a Dane, and Danish company Vestas now tests wind turbines at North Cape, PEI.

So, how did Samsø happen? In 1997 the Danish ministry for energy held a national competition for an island (Denmark has hundreds) to become free of fossil fuels and self-sufficient in energy production in ten years, a kind of model showroom for the country. So there’s the first clue: while all the heavy lifting was done by the local community, the national government set up the play. Indeed, throughout the 1980s, the Danish government primed both the national economy and the industrial sector to support renewable energy: subsidizing R&D, guaranteeing development loans for companies like Vestas, requiring utility companies to purchase clean energy at favourable prices, offering tax breaks to citizens who clubbed together to invest in wind turbines. This meant that such investments were basically a sure thing, key to winning over the conservative population of Samsø, who, it appears, bought into the conversion more for pragmatic reasons than idealistic ones.

Another useful lesson is that it doesn’t take a scientist or an Al Gore to effect real change: the director of Samsø’s energy project was a farmer-turned-high school teacher. He was successful not because he invented something new, or had new climate change research, but because he talked, and talked, and talked to people, on- and off-island. (How can you not like a man who says things like, “I may be a romantic, but I believe people want to do things together”?) In 2008, the year after the ten-year experiment, Time named Søren Hermanson a world Hero of the Environment.
On a cool and rainy day last August, I took a ferry to the port of Sælvig and then hopped on one of Samsø’s two buses (one loops the north, the other the south). Looking for a fantasy, I’m … initially disappointed. The farms and villages look perfectly ordinary, and just like the rural mainland. Where is the sparkly rainbow of energy miracles at work? Where are the wind turbines? (It turns out they are strategically placed out of common sightlines.)

I get off at Ballen, a port village on the eastern side of the island, which exists mostly on tourism (a marina and, as per usual in Denmark, a pretty fantastic bakery). This is the home of the Energiakademi, the headquarters of the energy project with teaching space for everyone from schoolchildren to foreign researchers. I’m met by Søren Stensgaard, who I’ve been emailing and who promptly puts me in a little electric car for a tour.

First stop is the district heating plant, a red-sided building which turns out to be full of straw bales, purchased on long-term contracts from island farmers: again, energy is just good, stable business. The straw is fed into a burner, which heats water, which is then piped to heat this quarter of the island’s few hundred houses. There are a couple of these plants and a couple of solar panel farms scattered around the island. It isn’t, as they say, rocket science: key to the ongoing success of the project is the ability of the local population to maintain the technology. As Søren says, as he calmly flips the burner on, “A guy who can fix a tractor can fix the burner.” The relatively simple adaptations, though, mean that the island’s new international reputation hasn’t created a lot of jobs for younger people here; most leave for school and then work on the mainland (sound familiar, Islanders?)

We drive south pass farms, most of which have either a line of large turbines in their fields or a smaller, hand-rigged one beside the house. Wind power, at whatever scale, just makes sense here. One farmer, one of the earliest adopters, regularly allows tourists to climb one of his turbines, but for most, they’re simply a way to operate the farm or bring in some money by selling electricity to the mainland. There is a newer field of offshore turbines to the south of the island, owned largely by the municipality, to do more of the same.

As we drive, Søren tells me about the island’s history, economy, and politics. There’s one grand, eighteenth-century manor house, but Samsø is better known for its going-organic farm produce and spring potatoes (and, from what I read on the ferry, kro or country inns). There are a couple of villages – Søren diplomatically waves at everybody – and I’m struck at how small a population this is. I’ve never been convinced of “the local” as the magic environmental bullet, but it seems that Samsø accomplished its energy transformation not in spite of its size but because of it. What could a place like Nova Scotia, equally maritime, equally small in relation to the rest of the country and in its resources and capacity, do on this model? Could the Maritime provinces collectively – as a kind of Maritime energy authority – approximate the role of the Danish national government (in lieu of Ottawa)?

Despite my predilection to see Danes as superior in such things – as EU leaders in wind renewables, a plan for moving off fossil fuels altogether by 2050 – a friend back in Århus reminds me that Samsø is unusual even for Denmark. And even those on Samsø will admit that as their energy became greener, their energy consumption actually went up. They are not eco-saints or neo-hippies, but people exactly like us. “We are,” admits Søren a bit sheepishly, “behaving just like every other person in the western world.”
Which, if anything, makes them an even more believable model for the rest of us.

In 2013, Dalhousie will host a transatlantic summer school sponsored by NiCHE for Canadian and Scandinavian students, on Energy in the North Atlantic World: Past, Present, Future.

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Jim Clifford is an associate professor of environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan. He published West Ham and the River Lea: A Social and Environmental History of London’s Industrialized Marshland, 1839–1914 with the UBC Press in 2017.

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