How community drives environmental change ~ Abaster

24 April 2009

How community drives environmental change

The Danish Island of Samso is a well-known environmental case study. The island has achieved energy self-sufficiency from renewable energy sources over a period of 10 years. It is a case study not only in terms of the success in moving from being fossil fuels dependent to wind and bio-mass based energy independent, but also in how important it is to leverage community, to build a common vision and purpose, and to promote ownership when it comes to tackling the global challenge of climate change at the local level. For those with an interest in the island's progression to energy independence, a report published in 2007 provides ample data and analysis. An article in the New Yorker captures the transformation well:

"Most Samsingers heated their houses with oil, which was brought in on tankers. They used electricity imported from the mainland via cable, much of which was generated by burning coal. As a result, each Samsinger put into the atmosphere, on average, nearly eleven tons of carbon dioxide annually. Then, quite deliberately, the residents of the island set about changing this. They formed energy co√∂peratives and organized seminars on wind power. They removed their furnaces and replaced them with heat pumps. By 2001, fossil-fuel use on Sams√ł had been cut in half. By 2003, instead of importing electricity, the island was exporting it, and by 2005 it was producing from renewable sources more energy than it was using."

What is most interesting is the community dimension and how a small, relatively conservative farming based community embraced and enabled the island's transformation.

In a piece in the Guardian newspaper, author Robin McKie interviews Soren Harmensen, the individual who spearheaded the effort. He recognizes that what has been achieved in Samso may not be easily replicated elsewhere (the island benefits from sustained winds, lower per-capita energy consumption and higher per-capita available bio-mass (vis-a-vis the Danish population)): "This is a pilot project to show the world what can be done. We are not suggesting everyone makes the sweeping changes that we have. People should cherry pick from what we have done in order to make modest, but still meaningful carbon emission cuts. (See prior blog post for more on cherry-picking and low hanging fruit to affect environmental change.) Harmensen goes on to note, however, that what really made the project a success was community engagement: "The crucial point is that we have shown that if you want to change how we generate energy, you have to start at the community level and not impose technology on people."

The article highlights another key element in the community's engagement - buy-in and not just at the conceptual level, but also at the financial level. Everyone has a share (whether through individual or cooperative ownership): "'No one minds wind turbines on Samso for the simple reason that we all own a share of one,' says electrician Brian Kjar... And that is the real lesson from Samso. What has happened here is a social not a technological revolution. Indeed, it was a specific requirement of the scheme, when established, that only existing, off-the-shelf renewable technology be used. The real changes have been those in attitude... 'Everyone knows someone who is interested in renewable energy today,' (Kjar) adds. 'Something like this starts with a few people. It just needs time to spread. That is the real lesson of Samso.'" The role of the municipality (local government) is also important - on Samso five of the 10 offshore wind turbines are owned by the Samso municipality, providing important local government support and commitment.

While Samso is a unique experiment, many of the lessons learned can be applied in other environments. There is no reason that other communities cannot adopt similar approaches to implementing change at the local level that will have a positive impact on the environment. Lasting global change will be brought about by local action - but it does not have to be as comprehensive as the Samso example. Local projects to increase renewable energy usage are essential to environmental progress, no matter their ambition. And as important as the technologies are, the real determinants of success are a community wide purpose and vision and a very real sense of ownership, as the island's experience shows.