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A story of green community engagement

Samso island

Sometimes a news article comes along that really seems to capture the spirit of the times – and one such piece was that in The New York Times recently, reporting the visit of representatives from small islands off the coast of Maine to the trailblazing island of Samso, Denmark, which has undergone a comprehensive long-term transformation towards green electricity and heating.

The idea of community energy schemes has been growing in profile, though perhaps the mechanics of ‘greening’ a locality are less well known. In this respect, the whole piece is well worth a read. As a story that captures some of the more practical concerns in getting serious community engagement in low-carbon energy off the ground, it provides unique insight.  

It profiles residents and community leaders thinking firmly on practical lines; not weighted too much by dogma. Soren Hermansen, who with his wife initiated the island’s green development, said:

“I’m not on a mission of saving the polar bears in the Arctic or changing the climate – I am on a mission of saying it is not good for us to be depending on imported fossil fuels ... It’s better to be in control and produce your own energy, and you can do that with green technology. So it’s actually more of a practical thing, like a farmer getting a new combine harvester.”

The benefits of communication on a personal level are laid out clearly, and tackling people’s fears by pointing out the advantages they could reap. Sitting down for beverages of various kinds where people felt comfortable proved a useful foot in the door.

“Plumbers were worried about losing business if people got rid of their oil burners; Mr Hermansen took them out for beers ... explained that if they learned how to install and service the new heat pumps they could move into that business. Much of the 44-square-mile island is devoted to agriculture, and to the farmers he pointed out that selling hay to the collective heating plants would provide a new income stream. Now one-quarter of Samso’s hay goes to heating.”

Successful case studies which clearly explain the processes involved in taking steps on a low-carbon journey are often central to widening a community project’s reach as much as possible. It is even better if these cases are local ones; people known in an area who have got involved early can explain the pros and cons from a personal angle. In this case, both of these were ticked by Hermansen approaching older residents with properties that qualified for a government energy efficiency scheme:

“‘I drank so much coffee I was practically galvanized inside,’ Mr Hermansen said, laughing. But, once on board, those residents served as ambassadors for the larger self-sustaining green energy plan, spreading the word to their children and grandchildren.”

Of course, we’re talking about a small island here, and things are not going to be the same when you’re considering a green program in a big town or city – or even a rural area where the population is more dispersed. But there is plenty to be learned from Samso that could help UK energy schemes like the Green Deal increase uptake, and community or council-level plans make a deep and lasting impact. 

Photo of Samso island by Malouette (http://www.flickr.com/photos/malouette/506149994/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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