The tiny island of Samso, population 4,000, which will be featured at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference meeting (COP15) has proven to the world the feasibility of attaining a zero-carbon footprint.  Just 10 years ago, this island had one of Europe's largest carbon footprints at 11 tons per person (for comparison according to the CDIAC, Switzerland and Sweden produce about 5.5 tons per person while the US produces 22 tons per person).  

Now the average carbon footprint is 140% less, a startling negative 4.4 tons of CO2 per person per year!  What is perhaps most interesting of all, is that the residents have benefitted financially from new found energy exports.  The man who started it all is farmer and teacher Soren Hermansen.  As he says, "It has made my bank manager very happy. But none of us is in it just for the money. We are doing it because it is fun and it makes us feel good."

Samso has become a laboratory study for how a community can pool together its resources and benefit as a whole by making their own energy. Because of its location, the island used to be dependent upon tankers shipping large quantities of oil and a grid which brought in electricity generated through coal-fired plants on the mainland.  Now the little island is exporting clean wind-powered energy at a premium.

And this carbon zero infrastructure was put in place not by outside energy companies, but by the community residents themselves.  Each energy plant was funded and is owned by a collective of local residents, turning potato farmers into real "power" brokers.  Hermansen himself now owns his own 1 megawatt turbine and has a stake in one of the 10 giant off-shore wind turbines (2.2 megawatts each).  The government of Denmark, as part of the competition which first inspired Samso to become carbon neutral, guarantees a fixed price on the energy produced in Samso.  This subsidy of sorts ensures that all of the wind turbines will pay for themselves in six to seven years.

One of the remarkable technologies implemented on the island is a centralized underground heating, or "district energy" system.  These have been growing in popularity in Europe where heating costs often far surpass electricity costs.  Several central heating facilities on the island use a combination of passive solar (heating) panels and waste biomass (mostly wheat and rye straw) which is burned on sunless days to create a consistent supply of piping hot water (150 degrees F) which is then distributed to homes via an underground network of pipes. (Note: straw is considered a carbon-neutral fuel since the growing of the straw absorbs more CO2 than the amount released through its combustion).

Hermansen doubts that the radical transformation which his island has undergone can be replicated at the scale of an entire country. Reproduced yes, but it must start at a local grass-roots level where group ownership and community buy-in can be thoroughly established.  As he says: 

The crucial point is that we have shown that if you want to change how we generate energy, you have to start at the community level and not impose technology on people. For example, Shell heard about what we were doing and asked to be involved, but only on condition they ended up owning the turbines. We told them to go away. We are a nation of farmers, of course. We believe in self-sufficiency.
A group in the US Pacific Northwest is attempting to bring a district energy scheme to their region.  They are contenders for this month's $10,000 Ideablob prize.  You can vote for them and learn more by visiting their page on Ideablob.