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Modeling a Cooperative Energy Future

by: Paul Kando

When you own a share in a wind turbine, it looks better, it sounds better. It sounds like money in the bank, observes Søran Hermansen, as he fields visitors' questions at the energy institute he heads. He offers a free lunch, including beer, to anyone who finds a dead bird within 100 yards of any wind tower on Samsø Island. Residents of the Danish island, population 4010, one of the world's first 100% energy-independent communities powered by renewable energy, collectively own eleven land-based, and ten sea-based, wind turbine-generators, and a number of strategically located district heating plants fueled by local hay or wood chips. Shunning fossil fuels, locals drive cars and tractors running on biogas, rapeseed oil, or electricity. More than self-sufficient, Samsø produces a surplus of electricity for sale to the mainland.

Samsø Island
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Energy experts from around the world flock to the island's energy institute to study how the people of Samsø achieved, in less than ten years, what most of the world still thinks can't be done. The secret is cooperation. Samsø's renewable energy facilities are all collectively owned by the islanders. Financed by Danish banks with loans paid back from energy cost-savings, they represent a total investment of $160 million, or $40,000 per resident. Each turbine generates some eight million kilowatt-hours of electricity -- worth $1,280,000 per turbine at Maine's residential retail rate -- every year.

Denmark has a long tradition of co-operatives, the accepted mechanism to raise funds to build and run community facilities. As member-owners, Samsøers enjoy low heating costs, thanks to district heating systems they collectively own, while their shares generate annual dividend checks based on each wind-turbine's output and the going price of electricity. The more energy-efficient a coop member's farm, the greater his net earnings. And, by producing more renewable energy than it consumes, the island's net carbon emission is zero.

According to Michael Zarin, Danish wind turbine maker Vestas Wind Systems, a massive three-megawatt wind turbine "pays back" the carbon dioxide emitted as it was produced - mining iron, smelting steel, trucking to the site, - in about seven months of operation, by displacing fossil fuel-fired power plant emissions. Wind power now supplies 100% of Samsø's electricity and 20% of Denmark's. Wind has also become the single largest type of new electricity generation installed in the U.S., adds Zarin, there is nothing 'alternative' about wind anymore.

Samsø's energy cooperative began in 1997 when Ole Johnsson, a consultant from Aarhus, Denmark's second-largest city, convinced Samsø's mayor to enter a national competition to become a renewable energy island. The major thought he would go to Copenhagen with a wheelbarrow and come back with money like a Viking, quips Hermansen. Indeed the Danish government did invest nearly $90 million over the next decade, but the money came with strings attached: achieving full energy self-sufficiency, employing readily available technology produced in Denmark, and local matching funds. From then on, we knew it would be an uphill project, says Hermansen.

Samsø's is a story of what a small community can accomplish, both environmentally and socially. If there was local opposition to this renewable project, it has failed to show up in any reported account. The island's energy resources are wind, sea, hay-fields, forests, sunshine and a tradition of cooperatives. But for the last of these, that sounds like Maine. Indeed a couple of Maine's own inhabited islands have or are installing wind turbines. New wind projects are also contemplated for Aroostook County and offshore. Maine also has more harvestable sunshine than either Denmark or Germany, a world leader in solar electricity.

Samsø's story is no longer unique. In Germany alone there are more than 70 communities, ranging in size from tiny hamlets to sizeable cities, which have become energy self-reliant using the cooperative model and local energy resources. But Samsø - an island twice the size of Manhattan and home to 22 small villages - is still an inspiring model for the future: a community utilizing its local renewable energy resources, and investing their energy-funds in their own economy, rather than importing expensive and harmful fossil fuels,.

How many Maine communities will go self-reliant and 100% renewable within a decade? How many will fail, too busy dredging up reasons why "it can't be done here"? It sounds like we did something extraordinary on this island, muses Hermansen. An average Dane adds some 10 metric tons of CO2 per year to the atmosphere, we effectively remove more than we emit to it. But we are just ordinary people - maybe a little naive, maybe a little egoistic, maybe a bit boring -- but this is how we are going to make our ordinary life work.

Are we, Mainers, that different? We can begin with our houses. The average house here burns 1,000 gallons of oil, or its equivalent. A cooperative, with the negotiating power of its collective numbers, can lower the monthly cost of living in our homes by (1) reducing the cost of purchased energy (2) arranging for low cost loans for members to upgrade their homes (3) hiring and training its own workforce or stable of contractors, (4) taking care of all the logistics involved, from energy audits to planning and supervising the energy-upgrade of each member's house and (5) displacing fossil fuels altogether, utilizing our local mix of plentiful sunshine and other renewable energy resources. Not to mention the jobs we can create!