The pre-dawn light was slow in arriving this cloudy morning, so I was expecting a minimalist sunrise. But once again I was reminded not to underestimate nature, for as Koko and I dodged puddles on a very wet road, the somber sky shifted into a kaleidoscope of gold, blue, white, red, orange, gray and pink.
While most of the action was in the northeast, clouds halfway across the sky turned an almost translucent red, snuggled up against patches of baby blue flecked with dots of white that were devoured by swirling masses of gray. And the shapes and colors shifted constantly, because way up there in their world, the wind was blowing and everything was on the move.
I’ve been thinking about the power of wind after reading an excellent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert on a Danish island that has managed, in a decade, to reach a point where it is producing more energy from renewable sources than it uses. Much of that power comes from wind turbines, which aren’t pretty. But then, neither are the oil spills, refineries, shale oil mining pits and Middle Eastern battlefields that are the backstory of our fossil fuel addiction.
What I liked best about the story was the revelation that the island’s 4,300 inhabitants aren’t greenies, or folks out to save the world. They just made a conscious choice to change the source of their energy — without government assistance and special tax breaks. As Kolbert writes:
The residents of Samsø that I spoke to were clearly proud of their accomplishment. All the same, they insisted on their ordinariness. They were, they noted, not wealthy, nor were they especially well educated or idealistic. They weren’t even terribly adventuresome. “We are a conservative farming community” is how one Samsinger put it. “We are only normal people,” [Jørgen] Tranberg told me. “We are not some special people.”
That got me thinking. Even though we on Kauai like to think of our island — and ourselves, by extension — as special, we are also ordinary people. And we have tremendous opportunities for solar, wind, wave and biomass available to us. Could it be possible for us to achieve energy independence, too?
Of course, it would require some major adjustments, not just in how we generate energy, but how we power our economy, too. I’m not quite sure how the fuel-sucking tourism industry, with its helicopters, boats, rental cars and abundant AC — and the jets that ferry folks from all parts of the world — would factor into the equation, or the military, with its missile launches and war games and plans for giant lasers that gorge on electricity.
But maybe these wasteful pursuits are the kinds of things we need to be examining closely, anyway, in the overall scheme of things.
As Kolbert notes in her article, a group of Swiss scientists has determined that 2,000 watts per person is the level of sustainable energy use for the world. And that includes everything, from food to electricity to transportation. To put that in perspective, the U.S. and Canada are 12,000-watt societies, and much of that energy is wasted. As Kolbert writes:
Relying on widely agreed-upon figures, the [Swiss] scientists estimated that two-thirds of all the primary energy consumed in the world today is wasted, mostly in the form of heat that nobody wants or uses.
Upon reading that, I recalled visiting my sister in New Zealand many years ago. When she wanted hot water, she built a small fire of wood, scrap paper and cardboard in a burner beneath the tank, and we bathed, did dishes and washed clothes while the water was hot. We weren’t deprived of the luxury of hot water, but since we lacked the convenience of getting it on demand, we had to become more conscious of and efficient in our actions. And always, at least in my opinion, becoming more conscious of our actions is a desirable thing.
Interestingly, the people of Samsø didn’t cut their energy use. It seems that when their homes were better insulated, they simply heated more rooms. All of us in the Western world have learned to take energy, and the comforts it brings, for granted, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn new tricks. The question, of course, is whether we can bothered to change our ways.
Perhaps, as energy prices rise and we’re confronted with more and more evidence of global warming and its unpleasant consequences, we’ll be motivated. I don’t think we’re there yet, but perhaps isolated islands fully dependent on imported oil are good places to start.
In her article, Kolbert asked Søren Hermansen, one of the movers and shakers behind the Samsø conversion, what other communities might take from their experience:
“We always hear that we should think globally and act locally,” he said. “I understand what that means—I think we as a nation should be part of the global consciousness. But each individual cannot be part of that. So ‘Think locally, act locally’ is the key message for us.”
And with that, I'm going to shut off the breaker to my hot water heater and use what's already heated for the rest of the day.