Sun, wind, crop waste power carbon-free island

OpenAccess Energy Summit keynote speaker invites questions (And admits he doesn’t have all the answers)

Samso IslandUntil 1997, tiny Danish island Samsø, was known for three things: pigs, cows and potatoes. That is, until it won a government contest that would pave the way for becoming one of the world’s first carbon-free communities. About 4,000 citizens turned to sun, wind and crop waste to generate all the power they needed.

Søren Hermanson, director of the Energy Academy on Samsø, was instrumental in his hometown’s transformation. Now, the sought-after energy advisor and consultant will be a keynote speaker at the Waterloo Global Science Initiative’s (WGSI) OpenAccess Energy Summit. A partnership between the University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the summit takes place from April 22 to 27, 2016, bringing together energy experts from around the world. We recently talked to Søren about Samsø, local energy ownership and what the future might look like for the 1.3-billion people on the planet who live without reliable access to energy.

Q: In 2008, Time magazine called you a “Hero of the Environment.” Do you feel like a green hero?

A: I feel like a human doing my utmost to be productive part of my community — and you could say there are a lot of heroes on this little island.

Q: How did you originally get Samsø to follow you?

A: No offense, but people don’t follow me, they follow their instincts. I mean, I’m very visionary, but I’m not a very good businessman. So, people would probably say, “It sounds good, but we’re not sure he has his numbers right. So we need the bank manager to support this project.”

In Samsø they discovered that if they all put a little savings into the project, they would all get money back and a little more — be greener and have a better project afterwards. So it’s about preparing the community for change by looking at practical household economy, not by convincing them through vision and ideology.

Q: Entire countries are trying to determine how to switch to renewable energy on a large scale and also deliver energy in places without reliable access. Are they looking to Samsø for ideas?

A: Well, I just came back from three weeks in Japan. Because of the Fukoshima disaster, we are now having a much more direct conversation about change because communities are threatened by the nuclear disaster in that area. They’re looking at a community power structure. The community is thinking, “If they (governments) don’t come up with a better solution for us, we need to do it ourselves.” That’s because it makes so much more sense. Instead of just crying about the misfortune, maybe we should think about the possibility to see what we can do.

My little island in Denmark can be an inspiration, but we are just one out of many interesting projects in Scandinavia that has this bottom-up approach.

Q: The energy crisis isn’t just about creating renewable sources of power, but giving open access to everyone on the planet. How do you provide that energy without creating more environmental and economic problems later?

A: The whole of Northern India is off grid and so are many places in Africa. But, the funny thing is that everybody in these remote areas has a cell phone. And soon they can start charging their own cell phones in little local shop with a solar panel and a battery. What if the next paradigm is off grid and organized locally? Maybe it will be about small wind power and solar power stations that will feed one or two villages.

Q: What are you hoping will come from your keynote presentation and all the conversations at the OpenAccess Energy Summit?

A: We have gotten used to saying, “why” instead of “how.” “Why” is about opening up the process and maybe inviting more people to enter into the discussion. But when you say, “how,” you invite all the engineers to talk and plan.

I don’t have the answers, but maybe I can help people ask some of the questions.

For more information, watch The Short Story: "Samsø The Energy Island"

Feature image credit: Erik Paasch Jensen and Samsø Energy Academy