SAMSø: THE ENERGY ISLAND

IT’S LATE DECEMBER. The winter holidays have come and gone, but my grandchildren are still on their winter break from school. I’m visiting Tom, Julie, and their parents, Monny and Marnie, in a Boston neighborhood. Tom’s friend Paul is also there for the day. After lunch we’re all in the living room chatting.

Paul turns to Tom and says, “Aren’t you going to show him the book?”

Tom promptly disappears upstairs, returning with a thin, oversized hardcover book, which he hands to me. “We found this in the library,” he explains. “We thought you’d be interested. It’s about an island in Denmark that makes all its own clean energy. They call it the Energy Island.”

Sun, Wind, and Water by Mon Cochran

“Really? How do they make energy?”

The usually reserved Paul is visibly excited. “They do it mainly with wind,” he says, drumming his fingers unconsciously on the arm of his chair. “It’s really windy in that part of Denmark. But they’ve also put up solar panels. And they’re using less oil and gas by driving
electric cars and bikes.”

“What made the people on the island decide to make their own energy?”

“The Danish government had a contest to see what town in Denmark could come up with the best ideas for making clean energy,” Tom replies, “and this little island called Samsø won!” He opens the book to an early page. “Here’s the island, right in the middle of Denmark.”

Paul points to the name of the island, Samsø. “How do you pronounce that o with a line through it, at the end of the word?” he asks. “Tom says you’ve been to Sweden a lot—do they use that letter too?”

“Not exactly, but they have a special letter with a similar sound. That letter ø sounds kind of like the ‘u’ in ‘turn’ or the ‘ea’ in ‘learn,’ I tell him. “Actually, ‘ø’ is a word in the Danish language that means ‘island.’ So how many people live on this island of Samsø?”

Sun, Wind, and Water by Mon Cochran
Samsø Island in Denmark
The detailed map at right shows different kinds of clean energy projects on the island.

 
“The book doesn’t say,” Paul answers. “It says most of the people are farmers and fishermen, but not how many people live there.”

“Have you looked up the island on the Internet yet?”

“Nope. Tom, could we use your mom’s computer?”

Of course Marnie says yes, and the guys dash upstairs to her study to see what they can find out. As they start exploring videos about the Energy Island, the audio drifts downstairs to us.

The rest of the family and I are taking Archie the dog out to a nearby park, but the boys decline to come along. When we get back after an hour, they come down with the laptop, eager to share what they’ve learned.

“Gramps, we found a video you have got to see!” Tom announces, as we take off our heavy jackets and warm our hands near the radiator. As we head to the kitchen for hot chocolate, they jabber on about Samsø Island.

“It’s about twenty miles long, the size of Martha’s Vineyard—you know, that island just south of the Cape,” Paul explains. “But only about four thousand people live there all year round. A lot of them are farmers. They live in about twenty little villages scattered all over the island, with lots of farmland around them.”

Samsø Island is about 20 miles long.

Once we have our mugs of hot chocolate, Tom jumps up and herds us back to the living room. “Dad, can we stream the video on our TV, so we can get the whole story?” Monny smiles and helps him connect the laptop to the TV, and we gather to watch.

 
Samsø: An Island without Oil

When the video ends, the boys look at me eagerly. I’m quiet for so long that finally they can’t stand it.

“What do you think?!” they both demand.

“I hardly know what to say. It’s a fantastic, wonderful, true story. I am blown away!”

“What I liked,” Paul offers, “was how they use the straw from the farmers’ fields as fuel to heat the water, and then send the water around the island to heat people’s houses.”

He turns to Tom. “Let’s tell them what we were thinking.”

Tom looks excited but nervous as he pitches their idea. “Well … we were thinking that maybe … maybe you could take us over to Samsø on our April vacation.” He looks from me to his parents’ surprised faces. “I have some money I was saving for a new fishing rod. I could use that to help pay my airfare.”

In an instant, I’m as excited as Tom is. Visiting Samsø would be a powerful way for the children to learn how a whole community works together to get rid of fossil fuels and live on clean energy.

Tom and Paul propose a trip to visit Samsø.

“Great idea, Tom. I’d love to see that island,” I say. “You don’t have to talk me into it. But it has to be okay with your folks.”

Marnie and Monny exchange looks and tiny nods. “We can talk about it, for sure,” says Marnie.

“What about you, Paul?” Monny asks. “Would your parents let you take a trip to Samsø with Gramps and Tom?”

“I can ask them!” Paul sits up straighter on the couch. “I have a little money saved, too. And we’ve got three months to go before April—I bet we can earn some more money between now and then!”

Something else occurs to me. “Did you want to ask José to come along too? Since he’s been involved with your project all along?”

Tom shakes his head. “We called him to talk about it, but he’s already signed up for a soccer clinic for that whole vacation.”

I’ve already started making plans in my head. “I’ll contact some people on Samsø to see whether April is a good month to visit, and where we might stay on the island,” I say. “No promises, but let’s explore the possibilities.”

The boys exchange grins and high fives. Then I notice that Julie looks close to tears.

“I want to go with you!” She looks pleadingly from me to her parents. Tom sighs audibly.

“It’s fine with me if your parents are okay with it,” I reassure her.

Again my son and his wife communicate silently. “If Gramps can figure out how to organize the trip and can help pay for it, we’re fine with you going along,”

Marnie tells Julie with a resigned smile.
 
FOUR MONTHS LATER WE’RE WINGING our way across the Atlantic, headed for Denmark. It’s the end of one of the snowiest winters in Boston’s history. The blizzards have helped pay for the trip, because Tom and Paul each earned several hundred dollars by shoveling snow for their neighbors. Julie did extra chores around the house and took Archie for long walks to the park via the snow-choked sidewalks—and in return her parents contributed generously to her Samsø fund.

We’re traveling during the school holiday in late April, so the children won’t miss any classes. Our short trip is starting on Friday evening, at the beginning of the break, and we’ll return the following Monday.

Because we’re flying on IcelandAir, our night flight from Boston makes an early morning stop in the capital, Reykjavik. As we skim low over the harbor, the sun, already risen this far north by April, lights a barren landscape of ice and snow. The sleepy children doze in their seats at the little airport during the one-hour layover. Once airborne again, they promptly slide back into their dreams.

I nudge them awake as we approach Copenhagen so they can admire an array of huge wind machines clustered in the water off the coast of the Danish capital.

Sun, Wind, and Water by Mon Cochran
Danish Wind Machines
These giant wind machines are in the ocean close to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.

 
Once we’re off the plane, I herd three somewhat groggy children to the car rental desk, where we pick up our little Fiat 500 for the drive to the ferry that serves Samsø. An hour and a half later, we pull into the parking lot at Kalundborg—just in time to catch the 12:15 p.m. ferry. My passengers have slept most of the way.

The trip from the mainland to Samsø takes a little over an hour. By now everyone’s awake and excited, and we lunch on sandwiches and yummy Danish desserts at the cafeteria on board. Sitting at a table near the window, we watch seagulls soar alongside the boat and snatch handouts tossed by passengers out of the air. Between munches, we go over our plans for the weekend.

Sun, Wind, and Water by Mon Cochran
Ferry to Samsø from the Danish Mainland

 
“Did you say that some Danish kids are going to show us around Samsø?” Julie asks, wiping mayonnaise off her chin with a napkin.

“That’s right. A girl your age named Maren, and Jens, a boy just a little older than Tom and Paul.”

“They know we’re coming, right?” Paul wonders.

I take a sip of coffee. “Yep. I went online and contacted a place on Samsø called the Energy Academy. It was set up to teach visitors how the people there were able to shift to clean energy, and what might work for people in other parts of the world. A guy named Søren Hermansen runs the academy, and he found Maren and Jens. They’re all going to meet us at the ferry terminal.”

“Where are we going to stay on the island?” Tom wants to know.

“I’ll show you.” I rummage through my backpack for a map and spread it on the table. One side shows where Samsø is located within Denmark; on the other is a detailed map of the island. I start with the national map.

Maps of Samsø

Samsø is right in the middle of Denmark.

Maps of Samsø

This map shows the towns and roads on Samsø.

“Samsø is right in the center of Denmark …” I begin, but Tom already has his finger on the island. He and Paul located it online several months ago.

Julie leans over to look closely. “So we drove to Kalundborg from the airport in Copenhagen,” she says, tracing the route along the map, “and now we’re on the ferry crossing over to this town here—what’s it called, Ballen?”

I flip the map over so they can see the island in greater detail. “That’s right. Here you see the Ballen harbor. That’s where we’re staying, at the Ballen Badehotel, which means beach hotel—there’s a beach nearby. And the Energy Academy is just down the road from the village.”

“Cool!” says Julie, tossing her auburn hair. “Too cold to go swimming, though.”

The view from the big window has been of wind-tossed waves with some whitecaps, a steady procession of fluffy clouds, and now and then a fishing boat in the distance. Suddenly a row of giant wind machines slides into view, ten of them, their long, slender blades turning majestically in the steady northwest wind.

Sun, Wind, and Water by Mon Cochran
Wind Turbines near Samsø
These ten ocean-based turbines are owned by families on Samsø and elsewhere in Denmark.

 
“Whoa, that is so beautiful!” Tom exclaims, springing from his seat. “Let’s go up on deck and watch from there.” The three dash across the room to the gangway leading up to the deck, while I clear away the remains of lunch. I know we’ll be landing soon because those wind machines are less than a mile from the island.

Soon we’re waiting in the car as the ferry nudges up against a big pier at the Ballen terminal. Finally the giant doors at the bow yawn open like a great mouth, and the line of cars begins to move. From the dark recess of the car deck, we creep onto the sunlit auto gangway and then stop in front of the terminal.

Arriving on Samsø

Our ferry approaches the terminal at Ballen.

Arriving on Samsø

We drive off through the bow of the ferry.

Off to one side stand a middle-aged man and two children, scanning the exiting cars with great interest. As I pull up to the curb, they approach, tentative smiles playing across their faces.

“Søren?” I climb out from behind the wheel and walk stiffly around the car.

“Mon!” he greets me. “Welcome to Samsø!”

As Tom, Julie, and Paul slide out of their seats, he pumps my hand vigorously, then turns to introduce his companions.

“This is Maren.” Søren gestures toward a slight girl with curly blond hair, wearing jeans and a red parka. Maren offers her hand to Julie, who shakes it with a beaming smile.

“And here is Jens.” A tall, thin teenager in athletic clothes and sporting a buzz cut steps forward. Tom and Paul make eye contact with him and shake hands.

Søren points across the parking lot, saying, “My car is over there. We’ll lead you to our Energy Academy, where we can have refreshments and talk about your visit.”

On the ten-minute drive to the Energy Academy, we pass through the village of Ballen. The road takes us past a pretty little harbor formed by a stone breakwater, several brightly painted fishing boats nestled alongside. As we pass a large yellow building with a courtyard, Søren indicates the sign announcing Ballen Badehotel.

Scenes of Ballen Village

Fishing boats in Ballen harbor.

Scenes of Ballen Village

An old-fashioned Danish bus takes visitors around.

Scenes of Ballen Village

We spent two nights in this hotel overlooking the harbor.

“That’s where we’re staying tonight!” Julie chirps. “Nice view of the harbor.”

Another mile or so along the beachfront, we turn into the driveway of the Energy Academy, pile out of the cars, and follow Søren to the front door. “Our staff is not here on Saturday,” he explains, unlocking the door for us. “Let’s talk in the kitchen.”

We choose refreshments, then settle around a long table. “So what do you already know about Samsø?” Søren asks the American youngsters. “I know you have been studying our clean energy experiment through the Internet.”

The Samsø Energy Academy

The academy with the ferry in the background.

The Samsø Energy Academy

The roof of the academy has solar panels built into it.

The Samsø Energy Academy

Søren Hermansen, our host.

The Samsø Energy Academy

The kitchen area where we met with Maren, Jens, and Søren.

The Samsø Energy Academy

Typical Danish lunch food.

The Samsø Energy Academy

The workspace inside the academy.

The Samsø Energy Academy

A wind turbine model in one of the academy offices.

The Samsø Energy Academy

A poster in the office shows some funny clean energy ideas.

Tom opens his backpack and pulls out a big piece of paper, which he unfolds and spreads out on the table. “We wanted to get a picture of what we learned from the videos about Samsø,” he explains. “This is what we came up with back home.”

An outline of the island fills most of the paper. Pointing into the island from one corner, Tom has drawn an arrow that says Money from the government.

Paul picks up. “We found out the Danish government had a contest to come up with ideas about how to make clean energy and stop burning fossil fuels. And Samsø won the contest.” Maren and Jens nod in agreement.

“You had to get off fossil fuels in ten years. So you hired a guy to talk with all the people on the island about it,” Julie continues. “At first they all thought it was a dumb idea.” She looks curiously at Søren. “Were you the guy they hired?”

He smiles broadly. “That was me.”

Also on the drawing is a stick figure talking to a bunch of other stick figures, with the caption Dumb idea. From there, an arrow points to a farm with cows and sheep grazing around a wind turbine. Next to the farm is a big $ sign.

“Then one farmer bought a wind turbine,” Tom explains. “And because there’s lots of wind on Samsø, the turbine made much more electricity than he needed. So he sold the extra electricity back to the electric company.”

Paul jumps back in. “See, he was making money, and then other people decided they wanted to make money, too. So four hundred fifty of them combined their money to buy two more wind turbines. Each turbine produces enough electricity for about six hundred fifty homes—with two machines, that’s thirteen hundred homes.”

Paul points to the drawing of two more turbines with electric lines running out to lots of little houses. He does the math for us: those 450 people could all get all the electricity they needed, with enough left over for 850 more homes.

“Then there was the part about making heat by burning straw,” Julie adds, pointing to a square building labeled Heating Plant. Squiggly lines show hot water running out from the plant to lots of little houses and back again.

Maren explains how that happened. “After harvesting the grain to feed the animals, there was all this straw left over, which we were just burning in the fields,” she says excitedly. ‘So we thought, ‘Why not use that heat?’

“The farmers liked the idea of selling their straw to make money. So we built a power plant with a big furnace that burns the straw to heat water, and we put in pipes to carry the hot water to four hundred homes. After it heats the houses, the water cools down and flows back to the big furnace to be heated up again. And the farmers get paid for the straw that is burned!”

“That heating plant worked so well, you built three more,” Paul adds. “But not all of them burn straw. One heats the water with twenty-five hundred solar panels, plus it also burns wood chips. The chips are sustainably harvested from trees on the island.” Tom points to one heating plant in his picture with the label Solar panels.

“The heating plant worked so well that you built three more.”

Julie looks at Maren. “Pretty soon, some of the farmers and other guys began to put solar panels on the roofs of their houses too, right?” Tom’s drawing also shows some little houses with tiny solar panels on them.

“Yes, right,” Maren answers, impressed by how much these Americans already know about her island. “My family’s house has solar panels on the roof!”

Julie is on a roll. “And not only that,” she says. “The first wind machines were so successful that pretty soon you guys built seven more on the island. That way you took care of all the electricity the whole island needed!”

As the American and Danish kids share their knowledge, the smile on Søren’s face has grown wider. Now he has a question. “But there was a problem, right?” he reminds the visitors. “Cars and trucks and tractors were burning gas, and most of the people on Samsø didn’t really want to buy electric cars. What did we do about that?”

Tom looks up. “Offshore turbines,” he announces, pointing to the south end of the island. “You built those ten windmills out in the water. We saw them from the ferry when we got near Ballen harbor.”

“Do those turbines run the cars and tractors and things?” Søren asks jokingly.

Tom accepts Søren’s challenge. “Nope,” he says. “But those turbines generate so much clean energy that it makes up for the dirty carbon coming from cars and things. So overall you’re making much more clean energy, compared to the dirty fossil fuels you still use.”

“Don’t forget the rapeseed oil,” Paul reminds us. “After a while, your farmers began to grow that yellow rapeseed crop and squeeze the oil out of it.”

Sun, Wind, and Water by Mon Cochran
Field of Rapeseed in Denmark
Farmers on Samsø run their tractors on oil squeezed from the rapeseed plant.

 
Glancing at Jens, he adds tentatively, “I think some of the farmers and other people on here on Samsø are burning rapeseed oil in their cars instead of gasoline?” Jens nods in agreement. He seems a little shy, maybe unsure of his English.

“In the video, wasn’t the wife of one of those guys driving an electric car?” Tom asks. “You have loads of electricity, so maybe more people are driving electric cars now?”

Jens finally speaks. “That is true,” he says firmly. “We now have more electric cars, and places to plug them in for charging.”

Søren pushes back his chair and begins to collect our empty cups on a tray. “I can see that you know our story very well,” he says. “I’m impressed. Tomorrow we will take you on a tour around the island, so you can see our clean energy projects for yourselves.

“But now Jens and Maren would like to show you around the Ballen area. We have some extra bikes you can use. How does that sound?”

“Cool!” Julie hops up to give Søren a hand, then she and Paul and Tom follow Jens out the back door to the bike shed.

Gramps is heading off for a nap after a long flight and a full morning. “I’ll meet you at the hotel when you’re done,” I shout at their backs as they leave.

Continue to Chapter 8: How the Danes Combine Sun, Wind and Biofuel