Energy Independence: Learning from Samsø

“We changed the NIMBY (not in my backyard) to IMBY (in my backyard!)”

Samsø is a foggy farming island in Denmark. I visited the island in September 2015 with a class from the University of Washington. As I biked around the island, I was struck by Samsø’s similarity to both the Puget Sound islands and rural farming communities east of the Cascades (like the town I grew up in). We were there to study a key difference between Washington and this little Danish island: their renewable energy infrastructure.

Map of Samsø

Map of Samsø

In 1997 the Danish government sponsored a competition with the goal of creating a community using only renewable energy within ten years. Samsø did it in eight years. Samsø is 100% energy independent through a combination of biomass, wind turbines and solar power, all pre-existing technologies. The  Danish government’s sustainability goals are being met by empowering locals on Samsø to organize their own path to sustainable development. After achieving energy independence through renewable resources, Samsø upped their goal to become completely fossil fuel free, a goal they’re still working on.

The biggest challenge to energy independence was local support. Søren Hermansen is the director of the Samsø Energy Academy and is the head of the energy projects on the island. At each step of the process Hermanson met with interest groups to hear their concerns and find a way to forge a path forward by creating shared value. Shared value is not about personal values, rather it’s about expanding the total pool of economic and social value. As a rural area full of conservative farmers and communities, being environmentally sustainable was not their driving motivation. Success was found by creating economic and social value in projects that also led to energy independence. 

“Self-sufficiency and local produced energy will strengthen development, create jobs and better conditions for sustainability… environmentally, socially and economically.”

There were three hurdles to being energy independent: heat supply, power supply, and transportation.

Heat supply

On Samsø, 75% of buildings are heated through district heating, the same method used by the University of Washington campus and many buildings in downtown Seattle. The island’s heating plants are powered by biomass; the boilers burn straw and waste products from the island’s farms. The farmers benefit by selling their excess hay and waste products to the local heating cooperative and everyone benefits by having a low-cost heating source. Farmers are able to make additional income by selling a waste product and save money by not burning expensive oil and gas, which must be imported to the island. The ‘green’ factor of reducing carbon emissions is just a bonus. When a group of plumbers was concerned about losing work as homes switched heating systems to a more efficient district system, the project organizers helped them get training to be experts on the new system.

Each bale of hay produces as much energy as 600 liters of oil.

Each bale of hay produces as much energy as 600 liters of oil.

Power supply

Electrical power for the island comes from wind turbines which produce 100% of the yearly consumption. Some turbines are owned by energy cooperatives, others by investors or individuals. Turbines are located in farmer’s fields and can be another source of income. An electric cable stretches back to the mainland, allowing the local energy cooperatives to sell excess power back to the national grid. When deciding where to place turbines, local preferences were as important as weather patterns. Turbines were placed in locations where farmers who didn’t want to see the turbines don’t have to. The turbines create a humming sound; rather than being annoyed, farmers know they are making a little bit of money every time the turbine blade turns.



Offshore wind turbines offset the energy costs of conventional transportation, both on the island, and of goods to and from the island. Samsø has more electric cars than anywhere else in Denmark. The ferry to Samsø is currently powered by LNG, but has plans to upgrade to methane produced by a biogas producer on the island.

The United States can learn about energy independence from Samsø. Taking a regional approach to energy production can create shared value and engage local citizens. Farmers on in eastern Washington can use their agricultural byproducts to heat their communities and provide additional income for themselves. Communities on Vashon Island or Lopez Island can reduce their energy costs by supporting island-wide development of renewable resources. Localized energy production doesn’t have to be driven by sustainability goals. A desire to reduce expenses and increase income works too.

New York Times article:

Søren Hermansen Ted Talk:



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