ÆRØ, Denmark – On a small island off of the country’s southern coast, sheep take shelter under a row of solar panels. Wind rolls off the ocean nearby, and sun glints white on the panes.
The panels are part of a 33,000 square meter solar field – one of the largest of its kind in the world. Elsewhere on the island, six wind turbines and three biomass heating plants churn renewable resources into electricity. This integrated energy system has helped to make Ærø one of the most self-sufficient and sustainable places in the world, nearing a goal to become carbon-neutral by 2025.
The commitment to sustainability runs deep in the culture here. Jess Heinemann, secretary of Ærø’s sustainability group, says that even the blacksmiths will install only renewable energy furnaces.
“No one – no one – will advise for anything else,” he says.
“People do something, and all the others get interested. They come visit. See that they have brand new solar collectors, or things on the roof. Or they have that new wood pellet burner, and it’s so, so much cheaper than the rest,” Heinemann says. “Those are very good stories. And people love good stories.”
Ærø is more than just a good story – it has shaped itself as an exemplar. In the early 1970s, during Denmark’s first energy crisis, Ærø turned to renewable energy. The first small outcrop of wind turbines went up, then a district heating plant based on 100 percent renewables. In the mid-’90s, the island competed to be Denmark’s ‘Renewable Energy Island.’ When it came in second place, Heinemann and others renewed their efforts. They tore down the 23 old turbines with plans to build six new ones. The island now produces more electricity than it consumes.
But Heinemann believes that there is nothing particularly special about Ærø’s residents that predisposes them to invest in alternative energy. Instead, he says, “People are doing the easiest alternative, money-wise. The renewable energy in the houses, the heating in the houses, it’s the easy thing to do … It’s nothing.”
Ærø is a low-lying island, almost flush with the ocean. The wind turbines that line its coast are among the most efficient in Denmark; the gently rolling farmland is broken up only by small buildings, mostly low farmhouses with moss-spotted roofs that do nothing to obstruct the wind. There is plenty of room for the solar fields.
Even in one of the most renewable places in the world, though, personal priorities conflict with collective aims of sustainability.
Nils Ørum runs Vesteraas Organic Farm, a fifty acre plot of land on Ærø’s southern coast. Ørum believes deeply in sustainability and in man’s link with nature – he said that he was drawn to farming so that he could work with “water, air, soil between my fingers and hands.” But when three new turbines were proposed for the plot of land just north of his, he took up the fight.
He said that the land had been protected, three times over; he eventually won. While the wind turbines were ultimately built elsewhere on the island, when the proposal for the new turbines for the 2025 goal came up, no one has been willing to approve them.
Thomas Estrup wrote the proposal for Ærø to become carbon neutral. He says that he simply cannot understand some islanders’ resistance to the turbines, which undermines their commitment to the 2025 goal.
“They say no to the most obvious solutions to make it happen. It’s like –,” Estrup trailed off here and shook his head, “–come on, guys.”
Still, though, Estrup believes that others can learn from Ærø.
“Here, we show the world that things can happen, that we can do it even here, in this small place, with no major companies to pay for it. There are only people, with their ideas and ambitions, and we make it happen. We are an example,” he said. “A good example.”