Approaching the tiny Danish island of Samso by sea, the first thing visitors notice are the wind turbines, some rising out of the choppy waters, others towering over lush green fields.
The 21 turbines have brought Samso international environmental acclaim — not only do they cover all local electricity needs, they also offset planet-warming emissions from fossil fuel use in transport, farm equipment and buildings.
Surplus clean energy is exported to Denmark’s two main islands on either side of Samso.
With heating for most homes running on wood chip, straw and solar energy, the island — just 28km long and with fewer than 4,000 residents — uses less clean power than it produces, making its carbon emissions negative.
“If you take all of Denmark, we have … carbon emissions of about 6, 7 tonnes per capita. At Samso, we have minus-3 [tonnes],” Samso Energy Academy director Soren Hermansen said.
Eleven years after showing the world how to meet electricity needs entirely from renewable energy sources, the island is embarking on the next step.
Dubbed “Samso 3.0,” it aims to stop the use of fossil fuels completely by 2030, 20 years before the EU is set to achieve that goal.
Globally, climate scientists have said that continued fossil fuel use raised carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 and last year, threatening a goal of curbing the warming they cause, to prevent rising sea levels and catastrophic weather events.
“This [plan] is very ambitious. We know that, but we have done it before,” said Hermansen, the architect of Samso’s transformation from a largely agrarian community to renewable energy revolutionaries.
It would require an overhaul of the island’s transport system, as well as changing agriculture practices so farms store more carbon than they emit, Samso Mayor Marcel Meijer said.
On an island that has no roundabouts or traffic lights, but boasts the second-largest number of solar cells per inhabitant in Denmark, nearly 80 percent of local government vehicles are now electric, with five charging stations spread around Samso.
There are also plans for a biogas plant to turn organic waste and other biomass into fuel for transport, including a state-run ferry now powered by liquefied natural gas.
Other goals include lowering the need for heating in homes and encouraging locals to switch to electric cars.
The challenge is huge, not least because the Danish government has been scaling back its green ambitions, pruning targets and slashing investment.
The latest Climate Change Performance Index from a trio of research groups, which tracks efforts by the world’s biggest emitters to combat climate change, ranked Denmark 15 out of 56 countries, below Malta and India.
For half a decade, Denmark topped the index.
When Samso won a government competition in 1997 for local communities aspiring to become fully self-sufficient through renewable energy sources, the island was facing a crisis.
A slaughterhouse with about 100 jobs was closing, people were moving away and imported energy was costing about 55 million kroner (US$8.28 million) per year, Hermansen said.
In multiple meetings, he sought the community’s advice and rallied support by emphasizing the savings from clean energy, as well as the potential for new jobs and skills from building and maintaining a wind farm and installing solar panels.