Sunday, June 26, 2016

Owning your Power

Post by: Paige Nygaard
4th year student at College of the Atlantic

Samsø is a beautiful island in the middle of Denmark, where everything seems to collide to make a peaceful and calming air filled with birds, the sea washing the shore, and the wind gliding against trees and grass.

Conventional energy systems rely exclusively on extraction and usually on displacement. But, by looking at the energy system on Samsø, it seems the flipside can be true: adding more to the community than is taken away. The energy that I’m most familiar with takes mountain tops off beautiful landscapes, and makes the air, the water, and landscape unfamiliar and uninhabitable. Although locals near these energy extraction sites bare the worst of the effects, they rarely see any monetary benefit. In addition, greenhouse gases are felt by all in the world as storms get worse, droughts are longer and more deathly, agriculture suffers, sea level rise affects the land and subsequent fresh water supply, places of inhabitable land are created, displacing many people who mostly contributed very little to the problem.

While we are most familiar with big companies or wealthy investors solely owning the energy extraction and generation, that is not how it has to be. On Samsø, many people own shares in wind turbines, solar arrays, or have their own household generation. The planning process of where their turbines would be placed and who would own them was decided through many meetings and community involvement. All of the Samsø residents I spoke with accepted the wind turbines and were enthusiastic about them, because they were not forced on them and they were offered a stake in them. Everyone on the island was offered to buy shares of the local wind turbine, something that is grounded in Danish law, but was expanded and enacted on Samso. Residents receive fixed-price contracts and have the opportunity to take advantage of extremely good loan options, making it affordable for every resident on Samsø. Being able to own your own energy production should not be a radical idea, but rather a right.

Replacing traditional fuel sources with renewable energy can go far to combatting climate change, providing an extremely low carbon energy source. But, on Samsø it shows that renewable energy can add a lot more than that to a community. Before Samsø had windmills and solar, they bought fuel from the mainland, exporting precious dollars out of the local economy. Now, the money stays circulating in their economy, something that is very valuable for any small island community. Residents are a much bigger fan of the wind blowing now, knowing that money is being generated to goes into their pocket. In addition, sustainable endeavors have provided more jobs to the community. Transitioning to a more sustainable place takes commitment and requires people to be trained with skills into order to help transform the island. In addition to over twenty-one onshore and offshore wind turbines, Samsø has three district heating plants, two that are straw-fired and one that is sun and straw-fired. Through this transition, households have been insulated, solar arrays have been installed, and new tourists have been attracted to experience this “energy island.” These various changes have created new jobs on the island and allowed for any household to reap the benefits from lower fuel bills and returns on shares of energy generation.

Job creation and increased money in the local economy is not surprising, but a pillar of discussion in sustainable transitions. The thing that was more surprising on Samsø was something very different, something that is much harder to point to with numbers or data, but how sustainability added to the community. It added a greater sense of place to many residents, allowed for Samsø to maintain and emphasize its natural beauty, brought the community together for a common purpose, and created a sense of hope in residents and visitors alike.

Samsø has struggled to keep residents on the island. A combination of lack of jobs and isolation often causes people to leave the islands they call home. I’ve seen this in my own island communities. Many Maine islands struggle with high energy prices and lack of good paying jobs that attract families. Many generations of my own family once lived on a Maine island, but moved off when it was too difficult to make enough money to feed their family. Samsø is an inspirational example of how islands could harness the benefits of their residents, resources and place to become more resilient. Looking inward to how communities can support themselves shows the incredible strength they have just from each other, allowing for greater wealth in the form of dollars and in human connection. Power must be shifted to the people on the ground, and we must value distributing wealth while we distribute energy. But, this transition cannot come from the outside, from someone forcing a transition on a place, it must come from the residents of a place that can see, and seize, the benefits themselves.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Energy is pervasive

Blog Post by: Alden Phinney

It's the 21st century, bro. We've got iPads, iPhones, iWatches, iMacs, iNtense agriculture, electric vehicles, solar hydrolysis, renewably charged Teslas, and big friggin windmills to power our iGadgets. Peak of the world, my friend. Coming from coastal California, I’ve long been fed this narrative of the left coast’s environmental and technological superiority in an exceptionally American world populated with neanderthal carbon burners. Have you seen that electric high speed rail proposal, bro? Pretty sweeeeeeet.

That is to say, I arrived in Denmark underwhelmed. Copenhagen airport functions much like any other, with concrete tarmac allowing various sized jets to ascend and descend, and their passengers to embark and disembark, amid a whirlwind of duty-free consumption. Down on the quai, waiting for the train, Paige and I met an Estonian woman. She was an English and German instructor, wife of an old Danish man, and being deported that very same day for lacking a valid visa, leaving her husband, a citizen, to his own devices while she reapplied to the Danish consulate in her home country. Her plight was a heartbreaking reminder of the European Union’s inflexibility regarding eligibility for citizenship; I had similarly been asked to leave the E.U. not 6 months prior while waiting for an Irish passport application surely languishing on some bureaucrat’s desk somewhere. I hope she finds her way back as soon as the winds may blow.
Paige and I caught our transfer train with only seconds to spare, marvelling at our good fortune without questioning why the train was leaving a good four minutes ahead of schedule. While lounging in felt reclining seats, we whizzed by the Danish countryside, pocked with farms, irrigation, and the occasional windmill. It stood in stark contrast to California’s sprawling agricultural infrastructure, viewed most often from a car seat, air conditioned yet stuck in immovable traffic on the highway.
Paige and I stepped off the train, thirsting for potable water after a33333333333 long day of traveling… The only plausible refilling station was a 7-11, where we paid about $4 for a big jug of water. We boarded a ferry belching black smoke to take us to a renowned renewable energy island.
Samsø is an island as technologically advanced as any in the world, and in many ways at the cutting edge of energy innovation. However, being on this idyllic isle has made me realize that a sustainable future will be comprised as much of old technologies and old-fashioned talking as any whizz-bang application of machinery and computers.

Arriving on Samsø, you are struck by the open fields and quaint villages. The island is famous for its potatoes and agricultural products. Vast meadows of herbs and amber grains sway in the ample breezes off the North Sea. Being an agricultural community as well as an island, Samsingers are quick to take matters into their own hands. Samsø’s strength in advancing an energy transition lies in its resilient and resourceful community. The closeness of people to each other and to the land breeds a kind of respect and responsibility that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Being on Samsø, you realize that what we think of as new energy infrastructure, from windmills to solar panels, are building off of an ancient human tradition of harvesting energy from our environments. In fact, the conventional infrastructure of fossil fueled power plants, energy extracted from deep underground, was the outlier in the course of human history. To see the 1 MW turbines chugging along, with the 300 year old wind-mills sitting in their shadows, reminded me of the importance of drawing off of our histories in the fight against climate change.
Bringing my experiences back to the United States, I’m reminded of the disparate histories which different communities know. Denmark was shockingly homogeneous. Access to electricity, education and the internet are widespread; stark reminders of colonialism and slavery are not part of the national character. I was at times doubtful that the community leadership harnessed by the Samsø Energy Academy could be replicated in the United States.
However, I think the tools that Soren, Malene, and the other folks at the Energy Academy and Samsø at large have taught us are replicable in spirit if not entirely in practice. Communities here do not know each other like the people of Samsø know each other; a first step to facilitating this kind of transformative change in our own communities is bridging that which divides us through discussion. Then, acknowledging local leadership as being the best placed to guide, validate and benefit from renewable energy infrastructure; no more wind farms in Northern Maine for the benefit of investors in New Jersey. Localizing our energy supply allows money and jobs to stay in the community impacted, lowering opposition and building buy-in for behavior change as well.

When people see the link between their energy supply and their energy use, they get it. Energy is not something that comes from somewhere else and evaporates into thin air. Energy is pervasive, and it is up to us to harness it. We have the potential to be the first generation to move from energy hunters and gatherers to energy farmers, cultivating our natural resources for our modern lifestyles. Let’s hope our communities are up to the task.

Friday, June 24, 2016

How to make the impossible possible

Post by: Margherita Tommasini
A 2nd year student at College of the Atlantic

I really feel uncomfortable speaking in public, I feel that no matter as much as I prepare in my head, I am not going to able to express myself, and that whatever I am going to say, it will not be good enough.
For our first interaction with the Energy Academy, during our first full day here in Samsø, we were asked to introduce ourselves and talk about our expectations for this trip. For the very first time, I did not feel that way. As Malene asked us, whenever we felt ready, to pick the “speaking stick”, I reflected for a few minutes, and then I felt ready to share.
It might have been Malene’s encouraging tone, or the positive energy irradiated by the beautiful nature that characterizes this island, or the respect and support that I could feel from my fellow students and the professors, but I felt something new, a reassuring feeling of acceptance and interest for me and what I had to say.
One of the most amazing things about the Academy, on top of the solar rooftop, the ridiculously low energy consumption, the low impact architecture, is the fact that it is an open space. It is a house, as Søren and Malene call it, that welcomes any guest that knocks at its door: be it a group of Danish CEOs, a Swedish middle-school class that won a prestigious contest, the Israeli ambassador, or a group of wild and loud college students from America…
It is hard to talk about what I have learnt over this past week, because there have been so many “revealing” moments, so much inspiration, many sparking conversation, and a lot of self-discovery and individual growth.
My expectation for this week, the one I intrepidly shared on that first morning, was to learn how to make the impossible possible. I have lived in Italy, Bosnia Herzegovina and now the United States, and from all these places, the transition achieved by Samsø seem a far utopia. Bad institutions, a post-conflict society, and the empire of capitalism seem incapable of letting down the corporate system of unsustainability. I was expecting to get off the ferry from Kalundborg and step into a magic land of semi-gods, heroes that found the proper way to live in harmony with nature.
I was kind of wrong. Yes, people from Samsø are different in a way, but they are just like anybody. They work, own a house, drive their cars (and they even use gas), some have solar panels on their roofs or a wind turbine in their backyard, but some do not. What I was even more wrong about is the fact that what has happened in Samsø is something that I had labelled “impossible”: It was not an easy process, it was one that took more than ten years, a committed core group—and then the energy academy—and the involvement and participation of the community, but it was within reach. What it is special about it, is that it allowed people to take action on things they cared about, to translate their hobbies into practices of sustainability.
And that is what I am taking with me, as cliché as it sounds: this idea that if people have the space and infrastructure to do the things they like, they will do them well and it will be easier to care for each other and for what we share in common.

This week was definitely an experience that will be very dear to me. Looking to the hills of Samsø and the sea that surrounds the island from the top of the wind turbine, cycling during the late sunset (almost at 11 PM) with the wind in favour, swooshing my hair all over my face, talking to the people of Samsø, getting to know my fellow-students—my friends—, I got to learn about community engagement and  I got to know myself better. I understood that nothing is impossible, and I have learnt that when people come together, they are capable of transforming magical things into reality.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Happiness on Samsø

Post by: Laura Berry
4th year student at College of the Atlantic

50 metres up in the air, the island of Samsø unfolds below us as we cling to the top of the wind turbine. From up here, you can tell why the people of Samsø have utilized the power of the wind for centuries – in the past to mill grain, and now to generate enough electricity to power the entire island. As the wind whips across my face and the turbine sways below me, I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

 My journey to Samsø was more stressful than expected – a delayed plane from London meant that even though I eventually arrived in Copenhagen, my backpack did not. Disconcerted from the jet lag and the sun shining at 9PM, I stumbled off of the ferry wondering if this week would end up being all about the technology that allowed Samsø to become the world’s 100% first renewable energy island.

What I didn’t expect – or let myself hope for – was the way that the staff at the Energy Academy and the other people we met talked about the transition not as a matter of technology or market economics, but as a long process through which a community of normal people worked together and eventually embraced renewable energy as a positive thing in their lives.  

I’ve known for a long time that sustainability isn’t only about the energy you consume or the amount you recycle. Although reducing consumption is key to environmental sustainability, the only way to help people become conscious of their effect on the environment requires them to reconnect both to the places and to people around them. But especially in the context of climate change and the pressing need to reduce carbon emissions from our energy system, it’s difficult to explain to people that sustainability isn’t an ends, but a means – and the only process through which long-term change is possible.

Samsø and the work of the Energy Academy is a proven example that top-down, government or corporate sustainability efforts will never be as effective or long-lasting as projects that are decided upon and owned by a community. As we explored the island over the week, it became clear to me that Samsø represents a way that people used the framework of environmental, social, and economic sustainability to truly make their lives better – and isn’t that the entire point?

At the same time, without the leadership of “firesouls” like those at the Energy Academy, and the supportive institutions and legislation of the municipality, the Danish government, and the EU, it’s very likely Samsø’s energy transition would have never been possible.

As I looked out across Samsø’s agricultural landscape now dotted with wind turbines, it became clear that even when located on an island, communities will never be able to completely isolate themselves from global issues. Especially in the context of climate change, these problems can only truly be solved effectively and equitably on a local scale by normal people who care about the places and people around them. But in order to be successful, we have to be willing to use economics and policy, not just technology, as tools to help encourage different and creative solutions that work because of the people who live there, not in spite of them.