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.