The Danish island of Samsø went from being entirely fossil fuel dependent to becoming the World’s first 100% renewable island, in under a decade. In 1997, the Danish Government launched a competition to develop a model renewable energy community, in order to prove that the country’s Kyoto climate target to reduce carbon emissions by 21% was doable. The 4,000-inhabitant island of Samsø applied and won with a proposal based on strong community engagement and a cooperative ownership strategy. While in a windswept country like the United Kingdom, installation of onshore wind power fell dramatically in 2018 leading to significant job losses, Samsø has shown how to make the technology a social, economic and energy success. Wind power is now projected to be Europe’s biggest energy source by 2027, but how the energy source is managed matters.

By the year 2000, 11 wind turbines covered the island’s electricity needs. A further 10 offshore turbines were erected in 2002, generating sufficient energy to offset emissions from the island’s cars, buses, tractors and the ferry that connects it to the mainland. Three quarters of the island’s heating and hot water is fuelled by biomass boilers fuelled with locally grown straw.

The rapid and just transition in Samsø proved that a wholesale shift to renewable energy was possible with already existing technology and achievable with limited government assistance. Nowadays, Samsø residents have an average annual carbon dioxide footprint of negative 12 tonnes per person, compared with the Danish average of 6.2 tonnes and 10 tonnes per capita in the UK.

Wider relevance

This example of rapid transition is interesting because – much in line with Mariana Mazzucato’s argument for ‘mission-oriented’ innovation policy – it proves the effectiveness of setting ambitious targets, and meeting them. The success of Denmark’s experiment with a rapid transition to renewable generation on the island of  Sasmø has become a beacon of hope around the world for what is possible, and provides concrete evidence of the feasibility of the Danish Government’s plan to achieve a 100% renewable energy system by 2050.

Samsø’s transition is also impressive because it was achieved with relatively little intervention from the national government, but rather with the active buy-in (both figuratively and financially) of the local community. That is not to say, however, that policy and resources mobilised at the national level could not speed much further the development of local and community owned renewables.

Oft cited concerns about the visually unappealing nature of on-shore wind turbines were debunked by the proactive inclusion of the community in the ownership structure of the turbines. The principle that was put into practice in Samsø was that if you could see a turbine from your window, you could sign on as a co-investor. The fact that so much of the island’s community have a direct stake in the wind turbines  helped to build the near unanimous consensus that the transition to self-generated renewable energy was a good thing. The shared ownership structure is consistent with the Danish cooperative tradition – of the 11 onshore wind turbines, 9 are owned privately by local farmers and 2 are owned by local cooperatives. Of the offshore turbines, 5/10 are owned by the municipality, 3 are privately owned and 2 are cooperatively owned by many small shareholders.

Context and Background

The context in Samsø before the rapid transition to 100% renewables was one of a multi-dimensional crisis – in social, economic and energy terms. The small island community suffered economically following the announcement in 1997 of the closure of the one of the main businesses – a slaughterhouse that had provided jobs to nearly 110 people. A lack of educational and work opportunities saw much of the island’s young population leaving – resulting in steady depopulation. Samsø was heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels, and was consequently highly vulnerable to energy price shocks. For heating, Samsø residents relied mostly on oil and the island’s electricity was generated from coal fired power plants on the mainland, brought to the island via an underwater cable. The potential for renewables had been unexplored on the island, and there was considerable scepticism amongst the local population, owing to the negative experiences of rural villagers involved in a failed scheme led by the Danish Energy Authorities to promote combined heat and power plants – which had resulted in higher energy bills for users.

The incentive for the Danish Government in promoting the renewable energy competition was to prove the viability of its recently announced Kyoto targets, but for the residents of Samsø, the incentive for the transition had little to do with climate change at all. The island authorities and its population saw instead the potential of the renewables transition to provide jobs, build-up the local economy and secure greater energy independence.

Enabling factors

Key to Samsø’s success in the national government competition to identify a candidate for its renewables experiment, and to the actual achievement of the 100% renewable goal, was the transparent and consultative bottom up process of implementation. From the very beginning, there was full disclosure of information. The masterplan was made public in the local library, and information on the process was shared through the local newspaper and discussed in great detail at regular community meetings. The consultation process built on the island’s long tradition of agricultural cooperatives, which ensured strong local engagement. Generous timeframes were provided for discussions and decision making, which allowed for confidence in the project and a strong sense of collective ownership of the decisions taken.

The transition was also made possible by the local and deeply committed leadership of Samsø local vegetable farmer turned energy advisor, Søren Hermansen. Hermansen became the energy advisor to the Samsø Energy and Environment Office (SEMK), which was tasked with providing information and advice to the islanders on the energy transition process. In 1998, the Samsø Energy Company (SEK) was set up to lead the implementation of the renewable energy projects – the wind turbines and district heating plants. Hermansen’s knowledge of the local community was vital in channelling his neighbours’ concerns to the SEK, and ensuring that problems were effectively resolved.

Finally, key to the success of this rapid transition was its flexibility, and a genuine commitment to be led by the expectations and concerns of the local residents – even when this incurred greater expense. For example, there was considerable debate around where the on-shore wind turbines would be located, with concerns about one proposed site expressed by summer house owners, bird watchers and a local church. Although the proposed locations of the turbines were determined by techno-economic feasibility studies of where they could be most easily installed and where the wind generation capacity was greatest, those implementing the project ultimately agreed to adjust their plans in order to meet the community’s wishes. This meant that the community felt genuine ownership over the siting of the wind turbines, which helped to dispel any negative feelings around them.

Scope and evidence

  • Between 1998 and 2007, Samsø became the world’s first 100% renewable energy-powered island, and has been cited as one of the most inspiring examples of a sustainable energy community.
  • Supported by market-based policy instruments (e.g. subsidies for wind energy), it is estimated that investments in the island totalled €57 million, resulting in approximately 20 person-years of employment each year over the period 1998–2007
  • Five of the ten offshore wind turbines are owned by the municipality, three are privately owned and two are cooperatively owned by many small shareholders. Of the onshore wind turbines, nine are owned privately by local farmers and two are owned by local cooperatives.
  • From a baseline of approximately 11 tons of CO2, nowadays, Samsø residents have an average annual carbon footprint of negative 12 tonnes per person, compared with the Danish average of 6.2 tonnes and 10 tonnes per capita in the UK.