They call Samsø Island the energy island, and so on arriving, I expected to see solar panels on all the roofs and windmills everywhere. This was, after all, the island which became energy self-sufficient within ten years, even exporting electricity to the mainland in that time period.

Surprisingly, that was not the case.

Samsø is a Danish agricultural island with about 3,800 inhabitants. It is long and narrow, with a width of only a few miles, so you are never far from the sea. It is located in the geographical center of Denmark, which has always had strategic implications, from Viking times to the passage of missile-laden Soviet warships en route to Cuba during the missile crisis. This strategic location is still important, allowing Samsø to export power to the Danish mainland.

In 1997, Samsø won a government competition to become a model of energy independence within ten years. It not only reached that goal, but surpassed it. The stimulus for this process was fueled by a crisis.

Superior pork had long been a mainstay of the island economy, and the local slaughterhouse was an important industry. But exporting the finished product to the mainland required a lengthy ferry trip. Having a slaughterhouse and processing plant on the mainland was more economically practical, and the island plant was closed. One hundred people lost their jobs.

Pig farmers also were affected, as were those who raised the grain to feed the pigs, causing a rippling effect right down the line.

Something had to be done to save the island economy, and to make island living less expensive. The island population was dwindling, as many islanders sought jobs elsewhere. Generating power on-island seemed like a good idea.

It sounds easy in retrospect, but it was a long uphill struggle, spearheaded by Søren Hermansen, founder and director of the Samsø Energy Academy, and a group of like-minded islanders. The result today is an island that generates its own electricity, heat and hot water. The Energy Academy is visited by people from all over the world to discover how this can be possible.


As we drove around the island, we started to see the famous windmills, or wind turbines—actually quite beautiful—rising over colorful fields of pumpkins and squash, red and green cabbages, lavender and mustard, recently tilled brown earth and fields of sprouting greenery.

Preservation of the land is important on Samsø; farmers are required to keep their lands planted over the winter, since doing so helps retain water in the soil and keeps the rich earth from blowing away in winter winds.

%uFFFCEleven large windmills supply electricity to the island—five in one area, and three each in two other areas. Ten offshore turbines generate power for sale elsewhere.

Some turbines are owned by the community, others by individuals, groups of private investors, or commercially. They are a good investment, with bank interest rates so low. One farm family borrowed money from the bank, and the man, his wife and their son each purchased a windmill from which they sold power to the community, giving a very good return on their investment.

Farmers are also eager to lease their land for the installation of a windmill, and to receive an income while their cows graze peacefully underneath.

The farm economy also is useful in generating heat for island homes. Straw, which used to be burned on the fields as a useless by-product, is now baled and used to fuel district heating plants, which each service hundreds of homes. Wood chips also are used.

This concept was explained at the energy academy as a closed cycle in which nothing is wasted. Household trash and garbage can create gas, and straw and wood chips fuel heating plants,

Smaller windmills also can be seen supplying power to individual farms. One thing that surprised me was the lack of poles and power lines. All utilities, except for high-tension lines, are buried underground to protect them from storms, and also for the aesthetics. The Danes prefer to see their views, and even the high-tension lines are slated for burial as soon as it is affordable to do so. (A new ferry, which will eventually run on island-generated gas, must be paid for first!)

Wind has been the prime energy source, but solar is playing an increasing role on the island, and a large solar array helps power a district heating plant servicing over 300 homes. Solar panels were being installed on a school as we drove past.

Another form of heat used is GSHP—ground sourced heat pump (which is different than geothermal). It is ideally suited to new construction. The principle is similar to that of radiant sub­floor heating, and can be used under a lawn, garden or playing field. An array of tubing is dug below the frost line. The temperature in Denmark at that depth is constant at about 55 degrees, so the water is thus preheated before entering the building. We visited a couple who had just installed such a system under their lawn, and saw how it could also be used to retrofit an older house.

Samsø’s energy work demonstrates the many possible solutions to supplying energy to a particular area. It also shows that it takes time for the right mixture to evolve. What works for Samsø and its deep agricultural soils would not work on Maine’s rocky islands.

But we have the wind, and better solar exposure than Germany, one of the world leaders in solar. We have the possibility of geothermal in our granite ledges, and biomass in the form of blow downs, which, if cleaned up, could reduce the ever-present danger of island forest fires. Recent research in tidal and wave action applications also provide promising possibilities.

Windmills and solar panels didn’t blanket the %uFFFClandscape of Samsø, but they are an important part of the mix that makes Denmark’s “energy island” work.

Ann Marie Maguire lives on Swan’s Island and traveled to Samsø Island earlier this fall with a group from the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront, and Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic.