HOW THE DANES COMBINE SUN, WIND, AND BIOFUEL

WHILE THE KIDS CYCLED AROUND, Søren and I drove to the Ballen Badehotel, where I checked our group in, then joined him for a beer in the dining room overlooking the harbor. We were met there by his wife, Malene, who leads an educational program for Danish students and foreign visitors at the Energy Academy. I was pleased to learn that she had read my book Just Right: Climate Science for Young Readers, and even recommended it to visitors from English-speaking countries.

For more than an hour we shared ideas about how to teach young people about climate science and the basics of clean energy. I also learned about recent developments in Samsø’s continuing effort to reduce its carbon footprint. As Søren was telling me about a plan to convert the engine on the ferry boat from oil to natural gas, the children trooped in, eyes sparkling and cheeks rosy from the fresh sea air.

Julie plops down in the chair beside me. “That was really fun!” she chortles, glancing at Maren, who grins back. They have obviously become friends. “We biked along the beach to Ballen, and then by the edge of the harbor. The fishing boats there are painted lots of bright colors, much prettier than the ones on the Cape.”

At the next table over, Jens, Tom, and Paul are looking at pictures on Tom’s phone. Søren asks the two visitors how they like the village.

“Very nice,” Tom answers, looking up. “I really like that old red bus parked down the street.”

“I told them that is just for tourists,” Jens objects. “Our regular buses look really different.”

Sights from a Bike Tour of Ballen

The beach near Ballen harbor.

Sights from a Bike Tour of Ballen

This poster explains in Danish the environmental services provided by a Blue Flag Harbor.

Sights from a Bike Tour of Ballen

The Blue Harbor flag flying above Ballen harbor.

“You have a way of rating your harbors that I haven’t seen in the States,” Paul volunteers. “Ballen harbor is called a blue flag harbor because it gets high marks in ten different areas, like ‘works for a clean environment’ and ‘has clean bathrooms.’ I think that’s really cool.”

By now it’s almost dinnertime, so our Danish hosts leave us, again promising a complete tour of the island the next day. The kids and I eat a delicious meal at the hotel and tumble into bed soon afterward, exhausted by the long flight and everything we’ve taken in during our first hours in Samsø.

At nine in the morning, the children are still sleeping soundly—I have to wake them in time for the hotel breakfast. There are more yawns than conversation as they sample granola with yogurt and strawberry jam, and toast topped with fresh butter and local honey. As we’re finishing up, Jens and Maren stroll into the dining room, followed by Søren.

“Did you sleep okay?” Søren wants to know. Seeing affirmative nods from our group, he adds, “Ready to explore the island? We’ve packed lunches for you.”

Soon we’re gathered outside by the cars, backpacks in hand. “First we will visit one of our land-based wind machines,” Søren explains. “I’ve arranged to have it stopped so we can climb up to the top of the tower and look around.”

“For real?” Tom looks at Jens, who’s clearly enthusiastic about the plan. Paul also looks a bit nervous, but Julie exclaims, “Let’s go!”

The boys pile into Søren’s vehicle, while Maren joins Julie and me in our rental car. The weather is a mix of sun and clouds with temperatures in the mid-sixties; quite nice for Denmark in late April.

We follow Søren three or four miles across the island, passing close to the little village of Tanderup. On both sides of the road, rolling fields are planted in winter wheat, already knee-high. As we approach the west coast, we can see across the flat farming landscape to three large wind machines. The blades are turning on just two of them.

“Wow, those things are tall!” Julie exclaims. Maren smiles. “Yes, and the view from the top is special,” she promises.

“The view from the top of the wind turbine tower is special.”

We turn onto a dirt track and pull up at the foot of the machine that’s turned off. Søren unlocks a door at the base of the tower and flips a switch to light up the interior.

“We are going to climb a ladder to the turbine,” he announces. “The tower is fifty meters tall—that’s one hundred sixty-two feet. Are you ready? Tell me if you get tired, and we can stop for a rest.”

As they enter the tower, Tom laughs and says to Paul, “Too bad José isn’t here.” Paul agrees, remembering their friend’s unauthorized attempt to climb up my wind machine: “This would freak him out.”

The Wind Turbine Tower We Climbed

The turbine tower from a distance.

The Wind Turbine Tower We Climbed

At the base of the tower.

The Wind Turbine Tower We Climbed

Close-up of the turbine.

Søren leads the way, followed by the Danish children and then the Americans. I bring up the rear. Slowly but steadily we climb, all the way to the top, where we gather on a metal platform. Above us looms what looks like a big engine.

Søren pushes a button, and two doors above the turbine generator slowly swing open, revealing a pale blue sky scattered with clouds. Søren steps up into the sunlight on one side of the turbine along with Maren and Julie, and I follow the boys on the other side.

The view from atop the tower is stunning. The ocean, just across some wheat fields, feels very close. Looking in the other direction, back toward Ballen, we see more wind machines in the distance. We stand speechless for a minute or two, absorbed in the breathtaking view, until Paul breaks the silence. “How many homes on the island get their electricity from this machine?” he asks.

“This is a one-megawatt turbine. It provides electricity for about six hundred homes,” Søren responds.

Climate Change for Kids
Our view from the top of the turbine.

 
“But not so many American homes,” Tom points out, “because Americans use more electricity than the Danish. So maybe four hundred or so American homes?”

The girls have been scanning Ballen for Maren’s house. “Six hundred—that’s a lot of homes,” Julie notes. “How much does one of these things cost, anyway?”

“About 1.2 million dollars,” says Søren.

“Whew, that’s a lot.” Julie pushes her blowing hair out of her eyes.

Paul looks like he’s calculating something in his head. “Not really,” he says. “If you divide 1.2 million dollars by the 600 families, that’s only 2,000 dollars per family!”

Søren is delighted. “Exactly!” he affirms. “That’s just the way we thought about it. So we sold shares in the turbines to many of the islanders, and borrowed the rest of the money from a bank. That way, those who bought a share of a wind machine are getting their electricity more cheaply than they used to, and it’s clean energy! Plus all those people feel like they own the wind machines, so they want them to be successful.”

“That’s kind of like you with your turbine,” Tom says, looking at me. “You own your machine, so you want it working right.”

“True,” I say, nodding. “But this turbine is a hundred times as powerful as mine. It can produce one thousand kilowatts (one megawatt) each hour in high winds, whereas mine is only ten kilowatts per hour on a really windy day.”

Tom, hanging on tightly to the turbine casing, is still thinking about Cape Cod. “Remember last Thanksgiving, when we came down to see your turbine and then went to Nauset Beach? We talked about how big turbines are getting, like the ones near the Cape Cod Canal. We figured that a seven-megawatt machine could make enough electricity for the whole town of Orleans.”

Søren listens carefully as he gazes toward the sea. “Here in Denmark, we have some turbines that large, farther out in the ocean. The towers are almost three times as tall as this one.”

Tom shivers a little at that thought. “Too high for me,” he announces. “I’m ready to go down now.”

We’re all getting hungry after our climb, so Søren leads us to a nearby beach for lunch. Sitting in the sand at the base of a high bluff, sheltered from the cold north wind, we soak up the sun and eat open-faced cheese and sausage sandwiches.

Climate Change for Kids
Picnic Beach on Samsø
With its lighthouse, this beach reminded us of Cape Cod.

 
After lunch I wouldn’t have minded a little nap, but the Danes have much more to show us. We follow Søren north along the coast road for seven or eight miles, through the village of Mårup to Nordby, the most picturesque village on the island. Rustic houses with thatched roofs crowd around a placid pond, with cobblestone streets radiating outward. We stop to take pictures.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Julie comments to Maren as they walk along the water’s edge.

“This is the way Nordby looked three hundred years ago. This village is at least five hundred years old. We are proud of our history and want to protect it,” Maren tells her. “But I like living in Ballen better!”

Nordby, a Traditional Danish Village

Several houses in the village square have thatched roofs.

Nordby, a Traditional Danish Village

In the old days, residents would share fish from the village pond.

Nordby, a Traditional Danish Village

The thatched roofs are made from straw grown on local farms.

Nordby, a Traditional Danish Village

White-washed walls with dark timbers are typical of these houses.

A short way from Nordby, we turn onto a dirt road that leads to a barnlike building with a large round tower beside it. In the adjacent field are several hundred solar panels.

“This must be one of those heating plants we read about,” says Tom as we hop out of our cars.

“That’s right.” Jens looks at Søren to make sure. “This one makes hot water to heat the homes in Mårup and Nordby.”

“How does it heat the water?” Julie wants to know.

Søren walks us over to one of the solar panels. “These panels don’t make electricity—they heat water. See these pipes?”

He grabs one. “The pipes carry water into the panel, where the sun heats it up. Traveling through all these panels, it gets very hot by the time it comes out at the end and flows into that huge water tank.

“Inside the building, we have a furnace that burns wood chips. That furnace heats the water up even more. It also heats the water on cloudy days and at night.”

“These solar panels don’t produce electricity—they heat water.”

“Tom and I learned about solar hot water systems in a project for school,” Paul offers. “You must have big pipes to carry the hot water to Mårup and Nordby,” he guesses. “And after those homes have used the heat, they bring cool water back here?”

“Exactly right. It’s a big loop, with hot water going out and cool water coming back into the plant.”

“We read that some of the heating plants also burn the straw left over from your wheat crops,” I add.

“We do. On the way back to Ballen we’ll pass a plant that burns straw.”

“But doesn’t that send carbon dioxide out into the atmosphere?” Julie worries.

“It does,” Søren acknowledges. “But as the wheat grows, it captures carbon dioxide from the air. So when we burn the straw, we are releasing the same amount of carbon the plants absorbed earlier.

“Over a twelve-month period, we aren’t adding any more carbon to the atmosphere than we took out by growing the wheat in the first place. And the wheat itself is used in other ways, like making bread and pasta and even beer.” He smiles.

“Photosynthesis,” Tom mutters to himself as we climb back into the cars. “That’s how the wheat plants get carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air.”

Samsø’s Community Heating Plant

The tower holds water that is heated by solar panels.

Samsø’s Community Heating Plant

This is straw grown on the island and burned in the heating plant.

Samsø’s Community Heating Plant

Energy from solar panels, combined with energy from burning straw, heats water, which warms houses in the village.

Samsø’s Community Heating Plant

The heating plant’s furnace burns very hot.

Jens and Maren want to make sure we see the very northern tip of the island, so we drive on. The ground rises gradually, and by the time we stop again, we’re high above the surrounding ocean.

At the high point sits a quaint, tile-roofed tower with a balcony and a weathervane of a man plowing behind an ox. Our cars have hardly ground to a halt when the doors fly open, and the kids dash up the ladder onto the balcony.

Before us, a lush expanse of fields spills down to the ocean’s edge. A narrow trail leads down through the meadow, but Søren reminds us that much of the afternoon is gone and there is still more to see.

The West End of Samsø

On top of the lookout tower is a weathervane showing a farmer plowing with a horse.

The West End of Samsø

Looking out over the ocean.

The West End of Samsø

The view from the tower.

The West End of Samsø

A thatched-roof cottage close to the shore.

The West End of Samsø

Danish cattle in a nearby field.

On the way south toward Ballen, along a narrow, tree-shaded road, we pull over in front of what looks like an old family farm and compound. Søren rolls down his window and shouts, “That’s where I was born and grew up! The farm is several hundred years old.”

Climate Change for Kids
Søren grew up on this traditional Danish farm.

 
A few minutes later, we pass a golf course with fairways rolling down toward the water. Again we stop and everyone clambers out. “This is our clean-energy golf course,” Søren tells Julie, Paul, and Tom. “You didn’t mention it in your summary of our story.”

Tom shrugs and looks at Paul. “Didn’t read anything on the Web about a golf course,” he admits.

Søren goes on to explain. “We ‘mow’ the fairways with sheep, and members clean up the poop. We have a solar-powered mower we use to trim the greens.”

We learn that the golf carts are all electric, with solar panels on their roofs. Solar-powered electric pumps move the water needed to keep the course green. “And we use no chemical fertilizer,” Søren concludes with pride, “only organic fertilizer made from seaweed.”

Julie reacts first. “That is so awesome!” she shouts, grabbing Maren by the shoulders and hopping up and down. After a second, Maren catches her enthusiasm and hops along with her.

“Cool,” says cool Paul. To Tom he says, “We could do that in the States! There are golf courses all over the place. Our golf carts are electric, but they don’t have
solar panels on them.”

Tom considers it. “I don’t know about the sheep, though. I guess we could use them if there were farms near the courses. Sheep poop on the fairways sounds like a problem.” The girls giggle and pretend to be wiping off their shoes on the grass.

Electric mowers used on the energy-efficient golf course on Samsø.

On the way back to the Ballen Badehotel, we pass another heating plant. Søren honks his horn to get our attention, and Maren reminds us, “That’s the one that burns straw.”

In another village, Søren leads us to a parking lot where a carport is covered with solar panels. “This is our latest effort to encourage people to buy electric cars,” he says. “You can park in the shade, plug in your car, and go shopping. When you come back, you have more energy in your car than when you arrived!”

Samsø’s Solar Canopy

A solar canopy is located behind the town hall.

Samsø’s Solar Canopy

Electric cars used by the town are charged by the canopy.

Samsø’s Solar Canopy

Cars connect to the canopy at this “Clean Charge” station.

Samsø’s Solar Canopy

The Clean Charge connector plugs into the front of the electric car.

As we pull up in front of the hotel, Julie leans over from the back seat and whispers in my ear. “Can we invite them to have dinner with us?” I answer, “Sure!” and in no time Jens and Maren are calling their parents for permission.

Soon we’re all sitting together at a long table: Søren’s wife, Malene, has joined us, so there are three adults at one end and five children in spirited conversation at the other. Malene, the education coordinator for the Energy Academy, fills me in on the climate change education programs they’ve developed for schoolchildren who visit the Academy from all over Denmark and beyond.

While we talk, I watch the young people out of the corner of my eye, pleased and impressed with how relaxed with one another they have become in only 24 hours.

I ask Søren and Malene what they believe are the keys to Samsø’s success story. At the other end of the table, the kids lean our way to listen.

Søren: “In Denmark, we have a very long history of cooperation, of working together. This is especially true in farming communities like Samsø. So when I told people that we had a chance to do something special, they were willing to cooperate in searching for a way to make it happen.”

Malene: “Yes, but remember also that gas and oil are much more expensive here than in the States. Søren could say to the people of Samsø, this might be a way to save some money.”

Paul: “Right—we drove by a gas station, and I noticed that gas costs more than twice as much here as it does in Boston!”

Julie: “The other thing is, you convinced people on the island that they could actually make some money by producing clean energy, right?”

Søren: “Correct. And one key to making money was having the Danish government guarantee the price of electricity for ten years. That way, banks felt they could safely lend money to buy the expensive wind machines. And people buying shares in the machines knew how much money they would earn from the excess electricity being produced.”

Tom: “Isn’t it also true that the cost of solar panels keeps going down? That solar carport you showed us looks very new.”

Søren: “Right again. Even the price of wind turbines is dropping, though they are still very expensive.

“Keep in mind also: we are a small island in a small country. In Denmark, everyone knows everyone, or at least they know someone who can connect them with the person they wish to contact. Things are more complicated in America, with the national government, state governments, counties, and finally the cities, towns, and villages. All those layers make it harder to get things done.”

We’re all tired after a long, exciting day, and tomorrow we Americans must make the long flight from Copenhagen back to Boston. But as we rise from the table, Tom sidles up to me with a request.

“Jens and Maren have invited us to their classrooms in the morning to see what their school is like. Could we stop there for an hour on the way to the ferry?”

“If you guys are willing to get up an hour earlier, so we don’t miss the ferry. If we miss that boat, we miss our flight back to Boston.”
 
AT 8:30 THE NEXT MORNING, Jens and Maren find us waiting at the school when they arrive on their bikes. Søren has also come along to say goodbye. While the children hustle off to the classrooms, he and I sit in my car, talking about more ways to stimulate the clean energy revolution in the United States.

Climate Change for Kids
The school Maren and Jens attend.

 
An hour passes before we know it, and the children come back outside. They’re all looking a little glum, having formed close bonds even on such a short visit.

“Gramps, if we stay with you on the Cape again this summer, could Maren and Jens come over for a visit?” Julie pleads.

“Sure, we’d love to have you.” I smile at the Danish kids. “I’d like to show you my wind machine, even though it might seem small to you.” I ask, “Have you all exchanged e-mail addresses?”

“We have!!” Julie answers happily. She and Maren share a hug, Julie saying, “I really hope we’ll see you this summer!”

The boys shake hands, and as we pile into our seats, Jens hands Tom a cardboard tube. “Here are some posters about Samsø and our energy experiment,” he says shyly. “You could show them in your school, maybe.”

Shouts of “Thanks!” and “Goodbye!” trail behind us as we drive off toward Ballen and the ferry.

Posters of the Samsø Energy Experiment

This chart tells the entire Samsø story.

Posters of the Samsø Energy Experiment

Julie wants to put this poster on her bedroom wall at home.