Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

Soren Hermansen

It's amazing what a little free beer can accomplish. In 1997 the small Danish island of Samso, nestled in the Kattegat Strait, won a contest sponsored by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Energy. Samso, then known for its dairy and pig farms, would become Denmark's showcase for sustainable power, eventually going carbon-free. How that would happen, however, was far from clear, since the government initially offered no funding, tax breaks or technical expertise.

Given that almost all its power came from oil or coal — and the island's 4,300 residents didn't know a wind turbine from a grain silo — Samso seemed an odd choice. Soren Hermansen, though, saw an opportunity. A restless native son who grew up on a family farm, Hermansen was teaching environmental studies at a local school when he heard about Samso's award. The appeal was immediate, and when the renewable-energy project finally secured some funding, he volunteered to be the first — and only — staffer. "I realized this could happen," he says. "This was realistic." He may have been the only one who thought so.

Hermansen knew Samso islanders were tight-knit and conservative. But that could be an advantage: once he convinced enough potential first movers to act, the rest would follow. So Hermansen showed up at every community or club meeting to give his pitch for going green. He pointed to the blustery island's untapped potential for wind power and the economic benefits of making Samso energy-independent. And he sometimes brought free beer.

It worked. The islanders exchanged their oil-burning furnaces for centralized plants that burned leftover straw or wood chips to produce heat and hot water. They bought shares in new wind turbines, which generated the capital to build 11 large land-based turbines, enough to meet the entire island's electricity needs. Not satisfied with that, they supported the construction of 10 massive offshore turbines, which provide power that offsets the island's dependence on cars and ferries. Today Samso isn't just carbon-neutral — it actually produces 10% more clean electricity than it uses, with the extra power fed back into the grid at a profit.

Hermansen has become a green oracle, traveling from country to country telling the story of Samso's success when he's not at home running the Energy Academy, a research center for clean power. But he's the first to say that the real credit belongs to the islanders, and that Samso's lesson is that environmental change can only come from the ground up. "People say: 'Think globally and act locally,'" Hermansen remarks. "But I say you have to think locally and act locally, and the rest will take care of itself."