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THE START – 1997 – 1999: Samsoe becomes Sustainable Energy Island

Date interview: March 4 2016
Name interviewer: Morten Elle, Center for Design, Innovation and Sustainable Transition, Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Copenhagen.
Name interviewee: Søren Hermansen (SH), 04-03-2016 + Malene Lundén (ML) 07-04-2016
Position interviewee: SH – farmer and head of Energiakademiet, part of the old Samsoe community, part of ‘the tribe’. ML – photographer and project manager, newcomer on the island (she moved there in 1988)

Societal crisis Social-technical relations Re-invigoration Political Parties NGOs Networking Identity Finance Competence development Civil Society organizations

This is a CTP of initiative: INFORSE - Samsoe Energy Academy (Denmark)

THE START – 1997 – 1999: Samsoe becomes Sustainable Energy Island   Samsoe sends in an application of becoming Denmark’s first Sustainable Energy Island in 1997, seeking funding and getting it. One of the reasons for the success of the application is the broad local public support. ML encourages SH head the project, because he has his roots on the island and can bring local people on board. ML: I encouraged SH applying, because he knew the historical conditions on the island, making him able to talk to ‘the tribe’. People on the island knew his family. He had a history on the island in contrast to the newcomers.   Local citizens are invited to take part in a workshop about ‘Good Energy’, bringing their different dreams to the table, relating to the idea of a sustainable energy island. ML: How about the rest of the population on the island? We have to invite them to ‘Good Energy’ where we develop our own perspective on the project – instead of a centrally developed political driven perspective.   More than 150 local citizens take part in the workshop. It is decisive that people gets their own perspective on being part of a sustainable energy island. ML: It was decisive that we used peoples’ dreams, categorised them, put them on the wall and made it possible for them to recognise that their own dream was part of a larger context. People were very enthusiastic.


SH: We had a number of good local, progressive people, who were able to see the possibilities and a progressive Minister of the Environment, Svend Auken. There was a good local plan and a long-term national political agreement that supported the plan.   Both SH and ML describes how the former Minister for the Environment, Svend Auken, played a decisive role in this critical turning point, as he, together with professor Niels I. Meyer gets the idea of getting a sustainable energy island in Denmark, and provides funding for the initiative. They established a green investment fund. It is also decisive that the initiative does not have all focus on the technical aspects of the transition, but are having an understanding of the importance of local public support. SH points at open-minded local business people as other important actors in this phase: some could see the local business opportunities in making Samsoe a sustainable energy island. ML describes how the local Environment and Energy office (part of Inforse) was not totally prepared for this kind of change.

Related events

Samsoe has been known for the fabulous potatoes and being a nice holiday island. Samsoe also had a slaughterhouse that was an important part of the island’s industry, creating jobs for many of the islanders. In 1997 the slaughterhouse is closed, leading to a major crisis on the island. SH: We have had many different crises relating to the loss of local jobs – this sort of burning platform draws attention to the possibilities.   ML did work with the slaughterhouse workers and had good connections with the labour union. The closure of the slaughterhouse sparks a local debate concerning the islands future: should there be more focus on the agricultural products, could tourists save the island’s economy or could they do something completely different. ML: I proposed to have a conference with the relevant actors, including the unemployed workers from the slaughterhouse, and use the conference to co-design the islands future. This debate paves the way for the public involvement in Samsoe Sustainable Energy Island. ML describes how the possibility of applying for funding turns the crisis into an opportunity. Having support from the labour union was probably an advantage in relation to the application, as Svend Auken was part of the Socialdemocrats – with a historic bond to the labour movement. A local conference on social actions in 1999 is a part of the further development of the project, inviting all the relevant actors to co-design the islands future. ML describes the different concerns related to involving the most powerful people on the island in this process, making it a two-step process: one step with the most powerful people in closed workshop, then inviting everybody in the next step, but encouraging the local ‘chiefs’ to stay (knowing that some would leave).


Not all people living on the island were ready to see Samsoe as a Sustainable Energy Island in the early stages of the project. Some people were not ready to see Samsoe as something else than potatoes and tourists. Some were desperately trying to find ways of saving the local slaughterhouse. These groups were in opposition to the project in the very start, but then gradually realizing the potential for them.   Furthermore earlier conflicts concerning windmills did influence the project in the very start. Farmers had installed their own windmills and the placing of these had led to local conflicts.


The fact that local farmers had involved themselves in getting windmills can be seen as a part of preparing the project, even though they had no ideas of a sustainable island concept at that point. Seen in the long perspective, the start of the initiative was not anticipated in any way. The opportunity came suddenly. ML compares it with the start of a war – which you often did not see coming before it was too late to react. The closure of the local slaughterhouse came as a chock to the islanders, even though one might have expected this as a part of the centralisation of the Danish agricultural industry. The island had no prepared emergency plan in case of loss of jobs. The opportunity to get a transition towards sustainability had not been foreseen either.   Seen in the short perspective, the local initiative was very well planned in details. The application was very well planned, and the transition to a sustainable energy island was well planned as a part of the application


The most important learning relate to the former workers from the slaughterhouse. The workers learned that the actually can be a part of shaping their own future. There is a future for the island. The islanders became proud of their island. The local blacksmith was not only a blacksmith any longer. He learned to identify himself as an important part of Denmark’s first Sustainable Energy Island. In that way the project creates a local ownership. Part of the ownership is also of an economic character. Windmills are much prettier when you are a co-owner, making money when the wind is blowing.   The general learning from this critical turning point is that you can turn a negative crisis into a positive development if you take care of engaging in the local community.

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