It takes a village: the rise of the community-based energy transition

A discussion with Søren Hermansen from Denmark and Shota Furya from Japan

This article by Søren Hermansen and Shota Furuya was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

It took only 10 years for the island of Samsø, in Denmark, to achieve 100% renewable energy. Starting their goal from 1997, their success lies in large part to wide public participation. Shota Furuya from the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP) interviewed his hero and the driving force of the island, Søren Hermansen (Samsø Energy Academy) about the key ingredients to successful community development, lifestyle changes and education.

 

“We need to make it possible to experiment with life and live in peace with nature instead of fighting and exploiting it like we do now.” - Søren Hermansen

Understanding the dynamics of a community

Shota Furuya: Hi Søren, it’s a great pleasure for me to interview you! Just so everyone knows, you are my hero when it comes to community-based energy transition and I learned a lot from your work on Samsø island and on global networking of community power. 

First of all, as you described in the book Commonities = commons + communities, you are always sensitive to the vulnerable relationship among different stakeholders, especially in the very initial phase of activities. 

What experiences helped you to understand the invisible dynamics of a community?

Søren Hermansen: Hi Shota, thank you for your nice words. You are a very valuable and trusting person and I appreciate our friendship very much!

My experience in the dynamics of community comes from living a long life in a local community. I grew up in a small community and that’s what influenced me.

Knowing who is who and what’s going on in the community is important for you to know when and where to launch a new idea. If you do not have this sense, then you might fail badly and announce your idea just in the most difficult time or when there is absolutely no reception for something from the outside.

The feeling or sensing is about putting yourself in the background and starting to listen to what people are doing, feeling, dreaming, afraid of etc. and then take it from there. If you want to build a wind park in front of a village, you can use climate change as an explanation, it can be a business proposal or similar, but very often the village response is negative! Why?

They might have been threatened by other outside projects before, like a highway, a nuclear power station, a factory, or similar, or they might feel left out from society. The government is not listening to them nor helping them with the school, the local water supply, etc. Then a new project sounds provocative for local people because, in their mind, external developers’ projects often brought trouble to the community. 

So sensing is about knowing and learning from the culture and history of the community and the people who live in these communities. When you are starting to get to know them, you might ask them: “if you look forward 10 years from today, what do you see here?” Very often there is a fear of change in small communities. Kids are moving away when they go to university and they do not come back. There are possibly no good jobs, and it is more difficult for the young generation to live a good life in the community they come from.

From there, you can slowly introduce people to the idea of maybe establishing renewable energy like solar and wind. These installations will then be seen as solutions to the problem mentioned above: there will now be jobs for the young people to come back to, there will be saved cost from imported fuels, and the economic situation will improve. In other words, the new installations will not be seen as dangerous to the community, but as solutions to the questions about the future of the community.

Shota: I have supported many communities in Japan to start a community-based renewable energy project after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. During these support activities, I often realised the importance of asking the right questions to the right person at the right time.

On the other hand, it takes more time to ask such burning questions, because I need a more sophisticated and deeper understanding of the local community. And most big commercial projects skip such deliberative processes and sometimes renewable energy brings protest or even conflict to local communities as a result.

So, I think the substantial nature of community power is ‘slow change’, but the current advancement of technology and media environment urge us to engage in faster development.

What do you think of this trend of fast change?

Søren: Local community is often relatively conservative towards changes. We, by nature, do not like change so much. So, a wind turbine in the landscape is a change of your near environment and immediately it is a disturbance and we do not like that. 

We need time to assess the possibilities brought by an evolution of the situation. ‘What’s in it for me’ is a change agent with a lot of value. The slow transition or change is easier when the ‘What’s in it for me’ has been defined. If you have the opportunity to own or feel ownership, it eases the way to change and makes it easier to accept the consequences of change.

Leadership in a local form is also a factor you need to respect. If you do not find the real leaders, both formal and informal, you risk the outbreak of opposition and a feeling of negative energy in the local community. Community leaders do not necessarily have to be the mayor or the CEO. Most often it is a farmer, an industry leader or a person with a lot of personality and someone that the entire community respects.

It takes time to identify this form of leadership, but you need to take this time to avoid any irrational opposition.

 

Grassroots and industrialisation

Shota: I majored in sociology and studied the history of environmental movement and policy development. Looking back at history, it seems like new initiatives often rose from grassroots activists with strong motivation for the future and the environment.


While many movements open up new space for green activities, the initial spirit of the movements gradually disappears as they became institutionalised in our societal system. And the system created a new kind of problem in bureaucracy.

I have tried to reflect this historical lesson to current energy transition by making a conscious effort to avoid bureaucracy and to innovate ourselves constantly.

How do you deal with such institutionalisation?

Søren: The institutionalised development from grassroots to industry is very interesting. You need frontrunners to lead the way to new innovations and new inventions like wind power and solar. It is also true that businesses will take over as soon as there is a serious financial opportunity for the products and market.

I believe this is natural, but at the same time, if you forget to appreciate and support the grassroots, then you lose this innovation power and grassroots will be less productive.

The Danish government has been very much aware of this in the past and after certain community projects were implemented, local energy and environmental offices were created and a lot of citizen organisations popped up all over Denmark. This helped people’s awareness and maybe also led a more tolerant population towards, for example, bigger wind turbines and larger technical installations in the local community surroundings.

The recently elected social democratic party in Denmark, from the previously conservative government, have very high targets for climate gas reductions of 70% by 2030. However, people do not own their own turbines as they did in the past thanks to the support of the previous government. As a result, there is a growing citizen opposition against installations made by industry developers, who tend to think only about profit, not community ownership.

You need top-down to walk hand in hand with bottom-up to make things work.

“Working with nature means you need to understand your role better and observe your surroundings so you can adapt to the possibilities given to you by nature.” - Søren Hermansen

‘Commonity’ as a global phenomenon

Shota: Let’s talk about global networking of community power. I have already contributed several articles on the topic of community power in Japan for The Beam. There are many wonderful stories in community power process in which people with different backgrounds and personalities interplay and overcome hundreds of barriers.

Whenever I work with community power folks around the world, I am always surprised that it is also true to other communities regardless of country or region, and because of this shared sense of community power, we can connect with each other easily with empathy. Furthermore, if a certain community is in need of help, we often support the community one way or another.

I think such empathy-based networking of global community power is so valuable for the future development and innovation.

How do you feel about this?

Søren: I think you know my answer already! We kind of speak from the same point of view and I agree that this is a global conversation and empathy is shared between most of these local communities.

We tried to formulate a new word for this: ‘Commonity’ as the construction of commons and community. Again, why?

I think the most obvious answer is that we, human society, are in the process of evolution and it leads us in a kind of the same direction. We are not all informed at the same time, but for some reason, we experience the same response to the challenges of the world. Migration from the rural areas and local development are threatened and we see young generations leaving their local community to go to cities to study and eventually to live and work.

So how does a local community survive? We need to focus on the good life, on the quality of nature and of living with nature. And we need to bring up healthy families in a sustainable green environment: this is where we share empathy and a feeling for a better life.

But the challenge is the roaring city life, with all its possibilities and constant offer of goods and consumption, but with no empathy and connection. You are amongst millions isolated as an individual and the biodiversity means less than knowing the timetable for the metro. If the train is late, you complain and get angry because it creates a chain of reactions mostly negative.

Working with nature means you need to understand your role better and observe your surroundings so you can adapt to the possibilities given to you by nature. When we know what we need to know in a local community, it makes it much easier to cooperate and interact together.

© Kyrre Havik Eriksen © Kyrre Havik Eriksen

Shota: Yeah, people tend to migrate from rural areas to the city, but they often forget the fact that the base of city, energy and food, is supplied from rural areas.

On the other hand, I feel like the younger generation is more educated about the environment and biodiversity than older generations. And some of the most motivated young people often say they would like to live and work in rural communities.

What do you expect the younger generation to do for sustainable community development?

Søren: Good question! I believe the next generation or the younger generation has dreams about a more sustainable life!

We see more young families move to Samsø to live this dream and to have a family living in a more sustainable and meaningful place. I am sure we will see more of these dreamers make their dreams come true in the future.

We are more educated than ever in the world but educated to know what the older generations learned. We are not so much educated in the creation of the next life and the skills it takes to break the conformity and already decided the destiny of multinational business and shortsighted financial profit focus. The stock owners want their investments to pay back, and they want it fast, without any consideration of the consequences. The introduction of ESG (Energy, Sustainability, Governance) targets for investments is not prioritised as they were meant to be. This makes it very hard for the next generation to change the pattern of their parents.

If you live in a very rich part of the world it is possible to live your dreams, yes, but if you live in a developing country or in a very poor or unstable country, it is very difficult.

I believe the developed countries should educate the next generation to make a radical change in lifestyle as the Kaospilot did 20 years ago. They created a new education without exams but with trust that life was a test and you needed to pass the life test and prove that you could navigate your life and make the best out of it. We need to make it possible to experiment with life and live in peace with nature instead of fighting and exploiting it as we do now.

So, if the young generation is not just supporters of Greta Thunberg, but real nature fighters, I think they will succeed in their life choices. If they only have a theoretic approach, they will not be able to ‘walk the talk’ so to speak, and frustration will be stronger than a successful change from rural to urban and the other way around.

I am actually working on a new school idea. The Danish folk high school system educated the young farmers and workers starting in 1844 and forward to be good citizens. They already knew how to work and they had practical skills. They needed culture, to be able to read and write, so they could receive an education and build on their practical skills.

Today, I believe we should reverse this folk high school system and educate the already capable academic students to relearn the practical skills of growing food, building houses and work with nature and material. Then I believe the transition from urban to rural will speed up. You need to learn about things before you trust your skill to be able to live with and by things in nature.

Shota: Thank you for the insightful conversation, my hero!

Søren: No problems my friend. I wish you all the best and hope to see you soon!