The people of Samsø have seen the future, and it is a wood-burning stove. Six years ago, the 4,400 residents of this diminutive Danish island made an ambitious pledge that they would learn to give up fossil fuels by 2008. Now they have largely closed in on the goal, primarily by embracing smart updates of traditional ways to tap renewable energy sources—sun, wind, biological gases, and wood.
The stove in question is actually a huge, state-of-the-art furnace that pipes hot water to about 180 nearby houses in the coastal village of Nordby. Above it, a giant scoop hangs motionless over an empty chute, its opposing claws clenched shut, a bundle of wood chips in their grasp. On a silent cue from the machinery’s digital brain, the claws release, and the chips tumble down to sustain a fire burning at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire heats water; the water heats the houses.
After emptying, the scoop slides along a track on the ceiling, stops above an open container, reaches down to grab more wood, then whirs back to its ready position. On a cold winter’s day, the stove might consume seven tons of chips harvested from a forest on the other end of the island. Now, however, it is spring and merely brisk, so the fire’s daily appetite has dropped to something more like a steady nibble.
Some of the heat dissipates in transmission, but the design is 80 to 90 percent efficient, says Lasse Lillevang, a consultant and the former planner for Samsø Energiselskab, a company that organizes and provides consulting for renewable energy projects on the island. “When you cool down the smoke, you have condensation containing a lot of energy. So the plant is actually 105 percent efficient,” he says. Outside, Lillevang points to the cloud billowing from the smokestack. “It is only steam; you can see how white the smoke is,” he says. “That’s because the burning process is so clean.”
Next to the smokestack are 20 rows of solar panels, 10 panels to a row—all told, 27,000 square feet of them planted in a muddy field. In summertime the panels will supplant wood chips as Nordby’s sole energy source for heating water.
As goes Nordby, so goes Samsø. The slip of land, just twice the size of Manhattan, embarked on this experiment in 1998 after winning the Danish government’s contest to designate a national Renewable Energy Island. Consultants from the mainland descended to remake the island’s entire energy supply, not just for heat and hot water but also for electricity and transportation—about 135 gigawatt-hours a year. The planners envisioned large-scale projects, including bigger wind farms and more heating plants run on renewable fuels. Improved efficiency and conservation were also in order. Residents would have to replace their old cars, and they would have to renovate their homes and businesses to cut heat loss. Farmers would have to find more efficient ways to work their fields. In all, it would cost more than $22,000 per person.
Danish energy planners saw the project as a clever device for marketing the feasibility and desirability of renewable energy. And Samsø’s successes provide a showcase with international implications. The Bush administration has stated a desire to reduce American reliance on oil imported from unsavory suppliers; John Kerry has declared that “no young American in uniform ought to ever be held hostage to America’s dependence on oil from the Middle East.” Meanwhile, American oil consumption continues to increase. Likewise, the country’s thirst for electricity is expected to grow by 50 percent by 2025. Renewable energy sources could help plug these gaps: A U.S. Department of Energy study declared in 2001 that renewables could meet 20 percent of the nation’s electricity supply by 2020 at a cost increase to consumers of just over 4 percent.
The Samsø experiment also offers a blueprint for getting clean, reliable power into small and isolated communities, a problem across the United States. A dozen years ago, Tom Stanton, an analyst for the Michigan Public Service Commission, helped devise a plan to wean Beaver Island, in Lake Michigan, off erratic and expensive power from the mainland through conservation, efficiency, and locally generated renewables. “It turns out that a place like Beaver Island exists in every utility service area in the world,” says Stanton. “Some communities are just going to be more expensive to serve.” The project faded after a few years, not for a want of technology but for a lack of local leadership. Boosters on Beaver Island had no model to follow. Now they do.