Samsø is a small Danish island where Iron Age Vikings once cut a wood-lined canal to rule the surrounding sea.
Today, Samsø is admired not only for its Viking past, but for taking a commanding lead of its energy future — the island of 3,700 people is powered by windmills and heated by a mix of solar and straw-fired energy plants.
Already carbon-negative, by 2050 the island plans to be totally fossil-fuel free.
When Gwaliga Hart and Jaalen Edenshaw got invited to tour Samsø on behalf of the Haida Nation, they found a fairly urban farming community, but with more than one similarity to Haida Gwaii.
“They even had a little deer that was causing trouble all over the place,” said Hart, who along with Edenshaw is a director of the local Swiilawiid Sustainability Society.
Speaking at the Haida Gwaii Renewable Energy Forum hosted by Swiilawiid in late September, Hart said that besides a similar population, Samsø also has several protected ecosystems and people who want to make the island a sustainable place to live.
Edenshaw said Samsø became a test case for renewables after winning a 1998 Danish government competition, one launched as part of its overall plan to meet the Kyoto target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But the biggest share of Samsø’s success came from community buy-in.
Early on, Søren Hermansen, a local vegetable farmer and now chief executive of the Samsø Energy Academy, was hired to speak with islanders and come up with a master plan.
“They literally went door-to-door to see how every person could get into this energy shift, and how it could benefit them,” Edenshaw said.
Much of Samsø’s electricity comes from 10 onshore and 11 offshore windmills (unlike Haida Gwaii, the island is tied to the mainland power grid).
As in other places, putting up windmills wasn’t an immediately popular idea.
But if you can see a windmill from your house, you can buy into it, Edenshaw said.
Today the windmills are owned by a mix of local co-ops, municipalities, private owners, and investor groups. Ownership is relatively affordable — a single co-op share starts at around $800, and after investing about $4,000, the payback pretty well offsets people’s power bills.
“Within two decades, they’ve switched it right around,” said Edenshaw, noting that Samsø residents now have an annual carbon footprint of minus-12 tonnes, compared with the Canadian average of about 16 tonnes and the world average of six.
“I strongly believe that what Samsø is to Denmark, we can be to Canada,” said Hart.
Haida Gwaii villages recently installed 173 kilowatts of photovoltaic solar panels on five public buildings, thanks to a $600,000 provincial grant.
The Old Massett and Skidegate youth centres also have small new arrays, and the large one on the Ḵay Centre is offsetting up to 40 per cent of the building’s significant energy demand.
Brigid Cumming, a Port Clements councillor, watched the three-year effort to get the villages’ solar project off the ground.
Combined, she said the arrays now offset the annual power use of about a dozen homes. But there are about 180 houses in Port Clements alone.
“It’s a good thing,” Cumming said.
“But it’s like we just pushed a big boulder up a mountain and then we go, ‘No, actually this was a marble up an anthill and the mountain is up there.’”
Rob Baxter, a co-founder of the Vancouver Renewable Energy Co-operative (VREC), is hoping that a co-op can make it quicker and easier to install more solar on Haida Gwaii.
So far, the Vancouver co-op has two solar-panel projects up and running in the city. The first started in 2016, and is already paying dividends to co-op members.
This summer, VREC branched out, way out, and installed a solar array on Baffin Island, Nunvut, in a remote, diesel-powered community.
“It was fun this summer watching it generate power at midnight,” Baxter said.
On Haida Gwaii, Baxter said the idea would be to have a co-op where the minimum investment is about $500.
“Ideally, the projects would be owned by the local community,” Baxter said, adding that if there isn’t enough funding from local members alone, financing is available from other co-ops and credit unions.
Meredith Adams, owner of Spark Sustainable Energy Solutions, has been installing solar systems on Haida Gwaii homes for a decade — mainly because people saw her own system and then asked for one.
Adams said she’s excited by the community co-op model.
“I definitely think it’s the best way to go,” she said, noting while solar prices keep falling, a typical 20-panel, grid-tied home solar system still costs about $12,500 taxed and shipped to Haida Gwaii. Offsetting about 60 per cent of the annual power use in a typical house, the payback period for such a set-up is anywhere from 10 to 30 years.
“If people got together, we could definitely bring that cost down,” she said.
Bit by bit
Solar panels and hydro projects aren’t the only energy options for Haida Gwaii. In Port Clements and Old Massett, biomass boilers now heating public buildings with waste wood collected from sawmills.
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Other plans being considered include onshore windmills, a wood-to-biodiesel plant, even a plastic waste-to-diesel machine at the Masset high school.
Another idea is to follow the model of Guelph, Ontario, where energy-saving retrofits on homes are financed through the municipality and repaid through property taxes so owners don’t have to carry the loan with them if they move.
After touring community energy projects on several First Nations across Canada this summer through the 20/20 Catalyst program, Darin Swanson, manager of the CHN’s energy program, said Haida Gwaii has plenty of choice.
“What’s in the future?” said Swanson, after showing photos of a windmill owned by the Kluane First Nation, and a 45-acre solar farm owned by the Six Nations of the Grand River.
“We have many options on Haida Gwaii. We have the luxury of hydro, wind, moon, earth, solar, and biomass.”
Stephen Grosse, chair of the CHN energy committee, said he enjoys hearing such success stories. But at meetings like the annual Generate conference in Vancouver, he said it’s just as useful hearing about all the renewable energy projects that don’t work out — BC Hydro needs reliable power to keep the lights on, he said, and it can’t take chances on unproven technology.
Whatever clean power options islanders choose, they now have a collective target to shoot for — 2023. That is the date by which all the islands elected and hereditary leaders have pledged to turn away from diesel power and become “energy sovereign.”
Called the People’s Clean Energy Declaration for Haida Gwaii, the pledge says, in part, that “Being on the front line of this global transition is important to enhance our role as strong environmental stewards.”
“The steps we take today demonstrate our responsibility and commitment to address climate change globally by taking action locally.”