Samso and Calhoun County, West Virginia

It may seem strange to compare a small island in the channel between Jutland and Zealand, in the middle of Denmark, with my home county here in West Virginia.  If you traveled to Samsø, however, you would recognize a lot of similarities.  The people are friendly.  The land is the most important feature you see, not buildings or highways.  Both communities share a measure of isolation caused by physical barriers.  Because both communities are rural, they face the same population trends – out-migration of young people and an aging population.

In the late 1990s, Samsø lost it’s biggest businesses – a large hog operation and a commercial slaughterhouse.  In the last twenty years, Calhoun County has lost the few light manufacturing businesses that appeared in the 1960s after the long decline of the local oil and gas industry.  Samsø has a significant summer tourism industry that Calhoun County lacks, but tourism is significant in other parts of rural West Virginia.  The largest employers in the local economies of both Calhoun County and Samsø are education and health care.

There are lots of differences between the two places, but one big difference stands out.  Samsø has visionary leadership.  And that leadership relied on the local people in the local community, not handouts from distant businesses and government officials.  As Søren Hermansen, the director of Samsø’s ten year energy transformation puts it on the title page of the project’s final report: “Think local – act local.”

If you read through the report, you will see time and again how the people of Samsø built their new renewable power systems themselves.  When they did engage outside help, it was always on their own terms.  They made mistakes, they overestimated what they could do, but they always moved forward.  When the new district heating systems threatened to throw a lot of local oil heat installers out of business, Samsø citizens worked out a deal so that a regional vocational school would bring courses to the island to retrain local technicians to work on new heating systems, energy efficiency improvements and skills needed for new renewable power installations.  The report also details the door-to-door efforts to help everyone on the island save money by reducing their energy use.  Particular care was given to the needs and abilities of older residents.

The municipal government of Samsø had started the ten year project by entering the competition, to be selected by the Danish government, to become the first area in Denmark to produce more renewable power than it consumed.  Samsø won that competition in 1996.  The Danish government specified that the winning municipality was required to have active involvement from the entire community, and that it use only readily available, established technology.

The solution for Samsø was relatively simple, because of the island’s location in the middle of a large body of water.  The people of Samsø installed enough wind generation capacity to offset all of their remaining fossil fuel use.  They also converted 65% of their heating to biomass fuel and solar power.  But they did most of it themselves.  About a third of their turbines is owned by power companies, another third by the municipal government, and the other third is owned by residents of the island as private investors.

Local financing was possible because local banks were innovative and serious about building the local economy.  The banks were willing to finance projects because Denmark had a strong and consistent policy of feed in tariffs for new wind power projects.  Both the investors and the banks could be assured that their projects would pay for themselves in less than ten years.  In fact, most of the turbines were paid off in about seven years.  Now, about 60% of the power produced on the island is exported, providing significant income for people on the island and their local government.

The revenue from the island’s wind power funded the construction of the Energy Academy on Samsø in 2006.  Here’s how the final report describes the purpose of the Academy:

The RE[renewable energy]-island project is a socioeconomic development project constructed as an exhibit for the use of renewable energy in a local community. As a direct consequence of these actions, the general objective to establish a central home for the energy island project took hold. The Energy Academy is a community hall for energy concerns, a meeting place for energy and local development.
The Energy Academy was built at the end the ten year project, but it represents a remarkable legacy of the initial effort.
screenshot-energiakademiet dk 2014-10-14 18-36-27 copy

A picture of the Energy Academy taken from the final report

All of the construction work on the building was done by local contractors.  The building incorporates computer controlled smart technologies and super insulation to maintain comfortable temperatures in the interior space.  The roof also incorporates integrated PV panels.  The advanced design provided training opportunities for local builders on these technologies.  As you can see, the building is beautiful.  The interior is very functional as well as being very comfortable and welcoming.

In addition to being the hub of local renewable energy development on the island (Samsø is continuing their project with what they call Version 2.0.), the Academy is now a center of international outreach as a tourism/education destination in its own right.  When my wife and I were there in late September, about 30 students from the College of the Atlantic in Maine were there for a two week residency where they were studying the application of Samsø’s experiences to islands off the coast of Maine.
We spent several hours with Michael Larsen, an Academy staff person who graciously discussed a wide range of subjects with us.  In the afternoon, another couple from Australia arrived and joined our discussion.  These informal international connections are part of everyday life at the Academy as international tourism around renewable energy beats a path to their door.  The Energy Academy itself is a big part of the economic impact of the original renewable energy project.  Travelers arrive there from China, other parts of Denmark, the US, other parts of Europe.  Take a look at the Academy’s calendar to see for yourself.  And yet the Academy remains a local community center, focused on Version 2.0 of Samsø’s renewable energy future.
Here in West Virginia, we face a lot of the same issues that the country people on Samsø face, but what passes for political leadership in West Virginia falls far short of the creativity, hard work and innovation that has characterized Samsø’s renewable energy projects.


4 thoughts on “Samso and Calhoun County, West Virginia

  1. No, what we have is a bunch of balderdash about the “war on coal” and the notion that the Marcellus will rescue the finances of our communities and provide jobs. How much of this is a cultural difference, and how much is generated by corporate-owned media and PR firms?

    • I’m going to do another post that picks up on what I see as differences between Denmark and the US. Some of it is definitely cultural, but that doesn’t mean that what the Danes are doing isn’t worth taking up here. The basic approach on Samso could work in West Virginia, if there was the will to do it. To me, that is the big difference – real self-reliance and the will to make change happen.

  2. Bill: This is another great article that includes a model that could be used in West Virginia. The obstacles facing the state, however, are not that WV is marooned by a sea, but held captive by large old-tech industries. Many steps are necessary: unwinding the tentacles of corporate greed from the windpipe of the legislature; replacing industry cronies from the West Virginia Public Service Commission; allowing the WV Department of Environmental Quality the room and resources to restore clean drinking water to the people; getting the governor to think about his own citizens instead of his election donors. All of this would go a long way towards allowing West Virginians to create their own visions of renewable energy transformation from the coal and oil-based utilities now in control. West Virginia has the intellectual resources, a trainable workforce and a ground-level desire to move forward into the 21st century. Let’s hope the citizens’ voices will be heard at the ballot box in the near future to address these issues.

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