Jorgen Tranberg purchased a wind turbine for $1.2 million, with a bank loan; it now stands in a row of five behind his farmhouse.
SAMSO, Denmark — The people of this Danish island have seen the future, and it is dim and smells vaguely of straw. With no traffic lights on the island and few street lights, driving its roads on a cloudless night is like piercing a black cloud. There is one movie theater, few cars and even fewer buses, except for summer, when thousands of tourists multiply the population. Yet last year, Samso (pronounced SOME-suh) completed a 10-year experiment to see whether it could become energy self-sufficient. The islanders, with generous amounts of aid from mainland Denmark, busily set themselves about erecting wind turbines, installing nonpolluting straw-burning furnaces to heat their sturdy brick houses and placing panels here and there to create electricity from the island’s sparse sunshine. By their own accounts, the islanders have met the goal. For energy experts, the crucial measurement is called energy density, or the amount of energy produced per unit of area, and it should be at least 2 watts for every square meter, or 11 square feet. “We just met it,” said Soren Hermansen, the director of the local Energy Academy, a former farmer who is a consultant to the islanders. In December, when the United Nations-sponsored summit meeting on climate change convenes in Denmark, many of the delegates will be swept out to visit Samso. They will see its successes, but also how high the hurdles are for exporting the model from this little island, a hilly expanse roughly the size of the Bronx. On a recent visit, Mr. Hermansen recounted, the Egyptian ambassador to Denmark admired all the energy-creating devices the islanders had installed, then asked how many people lived here. When he was told about 4,000, he replied with exasperation, “That’s three city blocks in Cairo!” Undaunted, Mr. Hermansen told him, “That’s maybe where you should start, not all of Egypt, take one block at a time.” Jorgen Tranberg, 55, agreed. “If there were no straw, we’d have no fuel, but we have straw,” he said, sipping coffee on the 250-acre dairy farm where he milks 150 Holsteins. “Everywhere is different,” he said. “Norway has waterfalls, we have wind. The cheapest is oil and coal, that’s clear.” The farmers, he said, used to burn the straw on their fields, polluting the air. Now, they use it to heat their homes. Counting only the wind turbines on the island, but not those that the islanders have parked offshore in the Kattegat Strait, the island produces just enough electricity for its needs. (With the offshore turbines it can even export some.) However, its heating plants, burning wheat and rye straw grown by its farmers, cover only about 75 percent of the island’s heating needs, continuing its reliance on imported oil and gas. The islanders have been inventive. Mr. Tranberg uses a special pump to extract the heat from his cows’ milk, then uses the warmth to heat his house. He has even invested in wind turbines. He purchased one outright for $1.2 million, with a bank loan; it now stands in a row of five just behind his brick farmhouse. He later bought a 50 percent stake in another turbine. But all that spins is not gold, he soon found out. When a gearbox burned out in one mill three years ago, the repair cost more than $150,000. He did not say how much he makes from selling the electricity. Energy experts emphasize that it is crucial for the islanders to squeeze energy out of their island without relying heavily on sea-based turbines. Not every region of the world is blessed with an expanse of thousands of miles of ocean at its doorstep.