ORONO, Maine — Soren Hermansen comes from a place that was overburdened by energy costs. It was a place where residents of communities in northern and southern regions were skeptical anything could be done about it. And it was a place where the different communities were even skeptical of one another.
Sounds a bit like Maine.
Hermansen has seen some of Maine recently, but he is actually from Samso Island, about 20 kilometers off the coast of Denmark’s main peninsula. For a 10-year period he was a witness to what happens when communities work together and with government to reduce energy costs.
Hermansen, who is now the director of the Samso Energy Academy, oversaw from 1997 to 2008 the island’s move to 100 percent energy independence, a term used to describe a freedom from energy practices such as the import of oil and the use of coal-fired boilers.
“We said in our vision of the project we should be [self-sufficient],” said Hermansen, who was named last year a Hero of the Environment by Time magazine. “That is a good vision.”
Samso was given the opportunity to become a pilot site when it won a competition coordinated by the Danish government. The island was given 10 years to convert its energy sources.
The government had already been investing its heavy tax on gasoline and other fossil fuels into research on alternative energy sources — Hermansen suggested the U.S. government should do the same thing regardless of gas prices — and in 1997 Hermansen began his job of convincing the island’s more than 4,000 residents.
He made trips all over the 114-square-kilometer island, which is divided into northern and southern halves with very different population bases.
“We were not trying to solve the problems of the world; we were trying to solve the problems on Samso,” he said. “I think everybody who lives in a place thinks [it is] the center of universe, and this is how it should be. … The Samso project illustrates that if you concentrate on a certain area, you can actually make some noise there.”
Now, Samso relies on a total of 11 onshore wind turbines producing 25 million kilowatt-hours per year, which is 100 percent of the island’s yearly energy needs. There are 10 more offshore turbines south of Samso which produce more than enough energy for Samso’s transportation needs. The rest is sent by cable to the mainland.
Samso’s biofuel boilers operate under a concept called district heating, in which several villages operate one boiler. There are five such plants that provide 75 percent of the island’s heating needs to about 60 percent of homes. The rest of the homes are too rural to be heated in this method, so they rely on solar energy.
The biofuel is made up of wood chips or straw leftover from the manufacturing and farming industries. The process takes more straw but the cost is one-eighth of the price of oil.
“We have totally reduced by 140 percent the [carbon dioxide] emissions we had in 1997,” he said, adding that the extra 40 percent is due to the export of energy to the mainland.
Another outgrowth of the change has been the Samso Energy Academy, which serves as a research and testing site for alternative energy.
Hermansen was encouraged by Gov. John Baldacci’s proposal Tuesday night during his State of the State address to put $7.5 million toward a Maine Marine Wind Energy Fund to support development of a testing site off the Maine coast.
“I don’t know what kind of politician he is, the governor of Maine, but apparently he was positive towards this kind of development,” said Hermansen, who was hosted Wednesday by UMaine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center’s Structures & Composites Center and the Maine Sea Grant College Program. “You should support him and help him make the right decisions, or help him get off the seat if he doesn’t.”
AEWC director Habib Dagher, a proponent of wind power, believes Mainers can look to Samso for inspiration.
“It shows what can be done,” he said. “There are a lot of naysayers out there, but it’s doable.”