Born and raised on the island of Samsø, Denmark, home to 3700 people, Søren got very early involved in the local sustainable development of his community. As an organic farmer he acquired the green certificate and when he got his environmental studies degree from the University of Aarhus, Denmark he turned to education and community development to become a high school Environmental Studies teacher.
In 1997, following the ambitious climate goal that Denmark committed to at COP3 in Kyoto, the Government launched a competition for a pilot 100% renewable energy community in Denmark. Although in rural areas fancy ideas coming from the capital city are often met with suspicion, Søren felt that this was his call. He had always been a member of the community and he was in a good position to talk to people and pitch to his community the idea to step forward, work for the sustainability of the community and at the same time become the world’s first renewable energy island. Under his coordination as Leader of the Samsø Energy and Environment Organisation, Samsø collectively took the decision to de-invest in fossil fuel infrastructure and invest in renewable energy. This led him to applying for and winning the National competition.
Søren took on the task of organising the engagement of the community and facilitate the planning process of the projects. In just 10 years, Samsø built eleven 1MW on-shore wind turbines, four local biomass-fuelled district heating plants and a pipe network to distribute hot water for the heating of buildings, solar panels close to one of the biomass-fuelled district heating plants to pre-heat water and save biomass resources, several photovoltaic projects on buildings’ rooftops, ten 2.3MW off-shore wind turbines in the sea area South of Samsø, while also Samsø Municipality replaced its municipal fleet with electric vehicles. The projects were co-financed by the municipality and citizens of Samsø.
In the meantime, Søren also looked forward and set up the Samsø Energy Academy as a gathering place for people interested in community development and innovative climate action. His passion has been to inspire people and communities to break the traditional thinking and embrace new paradigms of development. Sometimes we need to tear a wall down to reach a new place or dimension, as he puts it. Currently he is the CEO of Samsø Energy Academy, Honorary Doctor at TU Delft, Netherlands and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Sustainable Energy Planning in Aalborg University, Denmark. He is member of an Advisory Panel for the Danish Ministry of Energy and Climate, Member of the Innovation Network for the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF), Board Member of the Danish Organisation for Renewable Energy (OVE), and a MIB workgroup member of the Velux Foundation. In 2008, Time Magazine made him Hero of the Environment. He has been quoted in The New Yorker, Observer, New York Times, the Guardian, CNN, CBC, Al Jazeera, Al Gore’s 2019 Climate Reality Program and other international media.
Søren Hermansen led Samsø’s population engagement process in the fossil-free island project. He knows that the fear of change is generally embedded in people. We know what we have and don’t know what’s in the future. In order to break this human resistance, he first focused on the human aspect of the project idea, not on investment figures. He invited people in a process where they felt comfortable to talk about the unknown. In these open public meetings at first the locals were reluctant, while people from the capital Copenhagen or mainland Denmark in general, who have summer houses on the island, supported the idea of Samsø becoming fossil free immediately. This was a challenge, as it reinforced the locals’ initial perception that this was just another fancy idea from the capital and that there was nothing in there for them. Søren realised that this could kill the project before it had even started. To overcome this challenging barrier, he discussed thoroughly the project idea with key people in the community that could potentially support it in the next public meetings. He explained how the energy transition would affect professional groups, such as farmers, or jobs related to the old fossil fuel infrastructure. He suggested that farmers could sell straw to the district heating and new infrastructure would still require technicians’ expertise. Knowing well his community, he managed to get it to adopt his vision, engage and eventually co-invest and have ownership of its own energy transition.
Søren Hermansen has been the initiator and driving force of the process that Samsø’s community went through to become carbon negative. Until 1997 Samsø used fossil fuel-produced energy for electricity, heat and transportation, and emitted 10,61 tons CO2/inhabitant. By 2006 Soren’s actions had led to renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that brought its carbon footprint down to negative at -3.7 tons/inhabitant. Søren’s work strengthened the community’s confidence, demonstrated leadership and enabled change. The mindset of people, taking the initiative instead of waiting for their government to take action was the big mind shift, which led to success. Citizens of Samsø have realised they buy their energy from their farmer neighbor, who may further invest the profit on the island and raise the local economy, and no longer from a Saudi oil sheikh. The transition brought additional income and socio-economic benefits locally. It led to technicians’ re-skilling, had positive impact on employment, especially in construction work and maintenance of district heating and individual residential systems and it reduced energy heating bills. Samsø Municipality uses its income to further improve citizens’ quality of life.
Søren is considered a local “superhero”, while the island, too gained international attention and recognition. It receives thousands of visitors annually to hear and see first-hand the process and projects that led to success. Søren shares his experience to inspire other communities take action towards a more sustainable development, and organises workshops, leadership seminars and study visits for community leaders and policy makers around the world.
Local sustainable development has been dear to Søren since his early days. In energy transition to renewable energy and action against climate change he also saw a strategic opportunity for his community, anticipating that these issues will be high priorities for the decades to come. His vision had a tremendous benefit for Samsø. The island had been facing the same challenges as many rural communities: population decline, pressure in its economy, lower GDP per capita than neighboring areas in mainland Denmark.
Søren’s work made the community embrace the idea of a fossil-free island, actively engage in the planning and co-invest and have ownership of the projects. These elements made his community succeed in three key areas at the same time: take responsibility for local climate action, create economic growth locally and ensure a more sustainable future for the community itself.
Thanks to Søren’s vision for his territory, the Energy Academy together with the Samsø Municipality gained valuable capacity and experience from leading the energy transition on the island. In addition, the island community was empowered and proved its collective capacity to deliver positive environmental change. Samsø has become a brand name for what successful implementation of community-centered sustainable development can look like. While Samsø currently works to become completely fossil-free by 2030, Soren’s success in setting a good example of effective local climate action still inspires the island community and has enabled further engagement for 2030, a factor that may once more be key for success.
Søren considers that the whole energy transition and local climate action is about people taking action. After inspiring and motivating his own community on Samsø to engage in the island’s energy transition, he saw the potential for further sharing his experience to inspire other communities, too. Søren sees what Samsø has achieved as a potential reflection point and source of inspiration for people from other countries and societies and invites them to take elements back home and see how they work. He has reached out to many communities around the world and has been generous in sharing his knowledge about holistic cooperative community processes and his personal experience from the sustainable energy transition in Samsø.
He often addresses international events on sustainable energy, including in developing countries, especially when the participants are from the local level. He also attends community meetings in other countries aiming to inspire local leaders take local action. Back home, he hosts study visits, workshops and leadership programmes for professionals, local leaders and policy makers from around the world. So far he has shared his experience within Denmark, with island communities in Europe like the Canary islands, Madeira, Azores, Guadeloupe, Baltic islands, Crete, Aegean islands, Cyprus, Iceland, and with communities in Victoria (Australia), Maine (US), Hawaii (US), Texas (US), Aruba (Netherlands), Japan, Canada, Zimbabwe, Mali, South Africa, Indonesia. His passion is to inspire communities and local leaders get involved and engage in sustainable energy and design a more sustainable future for their territories.