Thursday

15th Apr 2021

Feature

EU's most sustainable islands are Danish 'Sunshine Islands'

  • The island of Samsø, in the Kattegat sea off Jutland's east coast - officially Europe's second-most sustainable island (Photo: Jeanette Philipsen)

The Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea is the first island out of 2,000 to win the RESponsible Island Prize by the European Commission for an extraordinary contribution to a sustainable and climate-friendly Europe.

Among many green initiatives, Bornholm early on began phasing out coal and oil, led by the regional municipality.

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  • Local residents engage with the climate plan at Bornholm's 'Regionskommune'

The island has also developed a 100-percent renewable energy system that combines solar cells, wind turbines, biomass and district heating.

"It means a lot to be acknowledged for many years' work to transform the island's energy consumption, which many actors have been part of; citizens, businesses and municipality," says the Social Democrat mayor of Bornholm, Winni Grosbøll.

Bornholm is known as the 'sunshine island', and the sun is also a big part of the transformation to sustainable energy. Also wind, biomass and biogas play a crucial role.

"It is important to have a varied energy production here on Bornholm. It is very sunny and windy, yes, but not always. It is crucial for us that we can always provide the islanders with energy, and therefore, our energy system is a combination of many existing technologies, which supplement each other.

"This approach secures us the energy we need, which is so important, because Bornholm is a small society," Grosbøll says, adding: "Can we make it work on Bornholm, it can work everywhere in the world. Bornholm is a green test island for renewable energy, a living laboratory, and it can play a role in the global green transition."

Engaging the locals

Besides favourable weather conditions, an important factor for the success, is the engagement of all sectors of society.

Also the locals, who have agreed on eight goals to become "a sustainable, climate-friendly island community by 2035".

But it is not only crucial to engage the 40,000 islanders, but also the many visitors - who quadruple the population during the tourist season, Winni Grosbøll explains:

"When you come to Bornholm, you are part of the 'Bright Green Island', where we take care of the island, and where we choose sustainable solutions."

One of the main challenges for Bornholm in the coming years, and where the €500,000 will be used, is the transition to green transportation.

"It is an enormous challenge and not something we will find a solution to tomorrow. This will occupy us the coming years," Grosbøll says.

Samsø

Europes's second-most sustainable island is Samsø in the Kattegat sea off Jutland's east coast, which receives €250,000 for its initiative to switch from imported fossil fuels to local renewable energy, but also for putting its community in the centre of the transition for their benefit, explains Social Democrat mayor, Marcel Meijer.

"It is the population itself, which took the initiative to the projects, invested in them and pushed them forward. Locals have been involved in several public meetings about the approach to sustainability. This is what makes it so special on Samsø," Meijer says and adds: "It has shown to be a good approach that locals have discussed the initiatives jointly; for example with the district heating plants, different actors such as farmers, locals, consumers, and businesses have participated in the projects. There is a risk for everyone, but everyone wins in the end.

"Farmers get paid more for straw, blacksmiths get jobs and consumers get lower energy bills. The same has been the case with discussions about windmills," Meijer explains.

Back in 2007, Samsø was already declared 100-percent sustainable regarding energy from wind, sun and biomass.

Four district heating plants, eleven onshore turbines and ten coastal turbines supply the entire island with all the energy that is needed.

That same year, the Energy Academy opened, where the community meets to plan energy projects on the island.

The €250,000 prize will go to the Energy Academy, which will work on one of the most central projects: to make Samsø 100-percent fossil-free before 2030, explains the director of the academy, Søren Hermansen.

"It is fantastic that we in Denmark have won two prizes. When we win the prize, it is because there are no other projects like Samsø in Europe, which have experienced so innovative and sustainable local energy development. We have a 100-percent energy production, and this is outstanding," Hermansen says.

Samsø with around 3,700 citizens, and which welcomes 4,000 visitors annually, has been through a significant transformation.

In the 2000s, the island struggled with an economic crisis, where unemployment rates reached 15 percent, and many young people left the island.

Focusing on replacing imported fossil energy with locally produced green energy, Samsø took the matter into its own hands and started a new era to become both economically and socially sustainable.

"We felt that we had to do something and we had to do it ourselves in stead of waiting for help from the outside. Businesses had economic incentives, while grassroots did it from idealogical reasons. Everyone took responsibility. At Samsø, you see more electrical cars, heat pumps and solar panels than in the rest of Denmark. Everyone has adopted the culture," says Meijer.

But there is still lots to do.

According to the climate plan, Samsø faces three main challenges: emissions from transportation, agriculture and adaptations to an already changing climate.

Samsø will - in accordance with the national target of Denmark - reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 70 percent before 2030 and achieve climate neutrality before 2050.

The island wants to become climate resilient before 2030 in order to cope with the challenges, climate change imposes.

Also Bornholm has ambitious green plans for the future, as it aims to become CO2-neutral by 2025, waste-free by 2032 and a zero-emission society by 2035.

The third price in the EU commission's RESponsible Island Prize goes to the British Orkney Islands, which receives €100,000.

Because of the corona crisis, the ceremony of the awards have not yet taken place, but have been postponed to autumn 2020.

Author bio

Mette Mølgaard is a freelance journalist in Copenhagen.

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