LEWISTON – Over the past 10 years, a small Danish island with a population of 4,300 has accomplished a conversion to fully sustainable, carbon-neutral energy.

On Friday afternoon, Sren Hermansen, who was named one of Time Magazine’s 2008 Heroes of the Environment for his leadership in the project, spoke at Bates College. In a fast-paced and entertaining presentation, Hermansen described the Sams Island program, often called Energy Island, that has become a model known around the world.

What does it take to accomplish all of this?

“Brave politicians and local heroes,” he said.

Could the United States follow that island’s lead?

“Make up your minds and get started,” Hermansen said. “You have demonstrated that you can change history.”

In 1997, Denmark’s government announced a renewable-energy contest challenging communities to show that they could live without fossil fuels.

As leader of the Sams Energy and Environment Organization, Hermansen persuaded his fellow islanders to make the difficult changes in mindset, technology and lifestyle that would free the island from its fossil-fuel addiction. Public participation was a key element, he said.

Because the project was carried out on an island, it was easy to monitor and measure all facets of it.

Hermansen also explained that high prices of petroleum products are a driving force, and high taxes are an important part of it.

“You have to face it. Pay the taxes,” he said.

Hermansen acknowledged that some islanders raised resistance to the plan in the beginning. He said they eventually came on board when they were shown how it could benefit them as individuals.

“We always hear that we should think globally and act locally,” Hermansen said. He modified that and urged that people think locally and act locally.

In 1998, the people of Sams were spending $10 million a year on energy.

They invested $75 million to get this turned around in the coming 10 years.

Centerpieces of the project are several off-shore wind turbines constructed on bases placed in water from 20 to 60 feet deep.

Citizens and local businesses were investors. One of these turbines has 450 shareholders on the island. Another had opened up investment to mainland residents, and that one had about 1,100 owners.

These offshore turbines generate surplus power that goes back into the country’s power grid. Several more onshore wind turbines provide 100 percent of the island’s electricity needs.

Hermansen noted that large wind farms in the United States are built and owned by large corporations. In Sams, the people are the developers.

He also explained how district heating for a high percentage of the homes is accomplished by burning straw grown by local farmers. It’s done at one-eighth the cost of burning oil, he said.

Solar energy accounts for about a quarter of the requirements of the island’s central district heating facilities.

In a question and answer exchange, Hermansen said some islanders raised concerns about visual impact and effects on birdlife. He said health impacts of low-frequency noise had not been fully studied, but no negative findings had been seen yet.

Hermansen, who is director of the Sams Energy Academy, has told the story of Sams at conferences around Europe and in Asia, as well as the United States. He spoke at several Maine locations this week.

Friday’s talk took place before a standing-room-only crowd in a large hall filled with Bates students and interested citizens.

The program was sponsored by the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College.

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