Decentralisation is the key to energy success and development, Søren Hermansen said in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV. Instead of focusing on Putin’s gas, the EU should create its own independent energy grid, including the national feed-in tariffs the Energy Union project opposes, he said.
Søren Hermansen is director of the Samsø Energy Academy. Samsø is the world’s first 100% renewable-energy powered island. He spoke to deputy news editor James Crisp.
Tell me about Samsø.
Samsø is an inhabited Danish island of 100 square km with a population of around 3,700. It retained its status as an individual island municipality during the post-crisis structural reforms, because we had such specialised conditions. This gave us the autonomy to decide things locally.
The island’s energy is 100% renewable. What kind of renewable energy are we talking about?
The major change has been from imported coal-fired energy to home-produced wind power. We have about 10% solar too, but the rest is wind.
For heating, we changed from oil furnaces in private houses to a new system. We don’t have a gas pipe, unlike some other places in Denmark that get their natural gas from the North Sea. Houses in densely-built areas are now all heated by a district heating boiler, which sends hot water out into all the houses. This is fuelled by local straw, woodchips from the local forest and thermal solar panels.
Presumably energy efficiency is quite important to this new system as well?
Yes, overall we set out to achieve a 20% reduction in our energy consumption. This was interesting because when we made the energy installations in the houses, we sometimes had to tell people they could not have district heating until they had upgraded their houses – installed higher standard windows, insulated the roof and the walls, etc. So it was quite easy for us to convince people that was a good idea.
The payback time for energy efficiency upgrades is maybe two to five years, so it is incredible that people didn’t do it before. But that’s just down to lack of knowledge. So when we had the opportunity to go into people’s houses and tell them what needed to be done, they could then just go to the bank, get the money and get the job done.
The energy efficiency agenda is something that is really being pushed in Brussels at the moment.
We need to do more studies on how to convince people that it is up to them to take these measures themselves.
You encouraged people to buy a stake in the wind turbines in order to overcome the “not in my back yard” mentality.
So many projects run into really big problems because people get afraid of the changes. They fear the consequences of the changes more than they like the potential benefits. I have seen this so much that I knew it was time to address this conflict and find a way to overcome it. People feel much more interested in the project if they are a part of it, if they have invested part of their savings in it.
What’s the return on the investment?
It is between 6% and 8%. So better than having the money in the bank.
People say the problem with renewables is that they are variable energy sources. Is that a problem on the island?
It is always windy, more so than other places, and it is also more sunny than other places. We have a very constant sea breeze and during the summertime we have more sunshine than the rest of the country. That is not just in the tourist brochures, it is for real!
Who paid for all of this?
It was paid for by the citizens, but they didn’t have enough money, so it was really paid for by banks. My engineer friends did the physical planning, and my job was to do the structural planning, integrating the planning permission policies, the engineers’ plans and the financial side.
Banks are not lending as much as they used to, so was there a public money guarantee on this?
That’s the reason why it’s good to be Danish! We have a guaranteed feed-in tariff from wind energy. So from the day you sign your contract you have a guaranteed minimum price per Kw/h for the next ten years.
The new Energy Union plans are strongly opposed to national feed-in tariffs…
Yes, Denmark has been in trouble for this several times. But they are looking at it the wrong way round. If you have a green target that you want to achieve, the market is not going to help you get there. And if the market says no, if we have too much energy on the market, then the EU has tied its own hands by saying it doesn’t agree with feed-in tariffs.
I think this is an ignorant approach. Right now they are buying pork meat to help farmers because there is a weak market in Russia. I mean, come on! We should let the market control that!
As a result of such public interventions, Denmark is now number one for wind energy in the world.
Maybe that is why some of the member states don’t like it so much.; But I think that we have to get a grip on that and ask ourselves where we want to be in 2020. If we want to reach our goals we need to find the instruments and means to get there. And if that is a minimal feed-in tariff that is just enough to keep the banks interested in this area, so that anyone who has a development plan that involves wind turbines can go to the bank and get the money to make the project work, then we should do that.
What are the benefits of being 100% renewable, apart from the fact that it is good for the environment? Is it cheaper?
No, it is actually more expensive in a way because you have to invest in changing the infrastructure. But the benefit is that we are not importing everything and depending on fluctuating energy prices.
Energy imports are really a live issue in Brussels with the crisis in Ukraine. What lessons can be applied here?
It is the same thing but on a larger scale. This is exactly the same fear we have here of depending on somebody we can’t control. Like many rural areas in the EU, Samsø is a low income area, and there is not a lot of money to play with. If you want to develop rural areas, you have to find a way to get the money, and that can be from avoiding expensive fuel from outside and producing it yourself. This means you create jobs and taxable income from these regions and you take the decision-making process away from the market and into your own hands.
Are the lessons from Samsø transferable to EU urban environment policy?
They are, but if we don’t really trust it as an instrument in a rural area, then it will never be an urban instrument, because there are too many interests at stake. The big utilities don’t like it because they want to control the market. If we are responsible for our own energy production and distribution, then we also want to be independent of state subsidies, because if the market is there we can control the costs and the administration and so on.
I am a big advocate of blowing up the headquarters! I am not a terrorist, but I believe in decentralisation. There is a lot of money sitting there, waiting for investment opportunities, but the HQ is not looking at people on an individual level, they just want to see your consumption and send you a bill.
Look at the UK, energy efficiency is really poor. If you go to many remote villages, the housing is in such a poor condition with no insulation and no district heating even if there is woodland right behind the village. Why don’t they have that? It’s because there is no instrument to help them organise it.
What support is needed from EU policymakers for the future? What would you tell the guys in DG Environment or the Climate Action Commissioner?
I have spoken to them all many times and they do not listen! I have given them all the same kind of “stand-up act” and they laugh, they think I’m a joker and they enjoy listening to me because they think I’m a dreamer and a romantic.
But they still think the big industry and urbanisation structures are the most important thing. It is all market-driven. The social and cultural condition of the EU is also a strong driver in many areas. They need to look at how smaller independent structures have been supporting the big perspective for many, many years.
Locality is the key to success and development. We should also regard the market as a ridiculous player here. The EU is already controlling the market so much that we can hardly call it a free market any more.
Why don’t we just break it up and say, ok, maybe there is different pricing in the EU and that’s fine? If it’s more expensive in Denmark that’s fine, if it’s cheaper in southern France, let it be. So we don’t have to be so specific about the market but maybe open it up and have a diversified EU and have many different solutions.
That sounds like the opposite of the Energy Union.
I know, it is the direct opposite! I hate to say it! What we fear most here is that Putin will cut off the gas supply. Why are we so focused on that? Why don’t we create our own independent energy grid, and why didn’t we do it years ago?