Exploring the world's built environments and seeking sustainable solutions.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Aero Island in Denmark: Behind the Times or Way Ahead?

Aero is a small, idyllic island off the coast of Svenborg. To many people it is a quaint, historic relic, clinging to its past architectural and economic heritage. But, for us, their impressive ability to preserve and restore historical buildings, sites and landscapes, and their unique form of using renewable energy for most of the island’s needs is really quite progressive and certainly sustainable. Aero’s economy is mostly agricultural and tourism based; the island has three small towns (as a result of dividing up the original island land holding amongst three brothers); and it boasts one of the highest levels of renewable energy in the world, all based on local resources and design ingenuity. Our host for our day on Aero was Jess Heinemann, the community’s engineer involved in renewable energy as well as historic preservation. In fact, there seems to be little that Jess is not involved with. He lives in a restored historic house in Aeroskobing, the first town you encounter as you depart the ferry.

Aeroskobing remains as it has for hundreds of years with narrow cobblestone streets, historic houses and shops, and intimate plazas and public spaces. Their regulations for preserving history are strict and exacting, leaving little room for change and growth. Even windows and doors must conform to historic requirements. While this may seem limiting, it is designed to fulfill the community’s vision and serves to give the island its charm and tourist appeal. Preserving and reusing older buildings is a sustainable activity for various reasons: (1) retains the embodied energy of a built structure; (2) does not require new energy for construction; and (3) maintains physical scale and character at a time when auto use did not exist. They make provisions to upgrade buildings for energy efficiency, insulation and improved lighting and heating. Still, for many, the restrictions are too onerous and creativity in design reduced.

The most surprising thing about this small isolated island is the long track record with renewable energy, something in which Jess has certainly played a major role. The island boasts three massive wind turbines that generate a good bit of their electricity, modern in every way and based on our up close and personal look, quite quiet. They would have more, but residents were concerned about too many turbines changing the views. The island also has a series of small district heating plants, all based in large measure on renewable sources. Each of them uses an ingenious and fairly low tech solar thermal system including the one at Marstal, the largest of its kind in the world. Each of them also uses various bio-fuels to add to the mix in winter. In one, the primary fuel is wood pellets from waste from the Danish furniture industry. In another, they use crop waste from local farming, and also some vegetable oils like rape seed. Each has a unique mix and a unique sizing and design connected to what resources are available. Over half of the island is connected to these district heating facilities (in the towns), while the houses and farms in the countryside must fashion their own solutions. Some have so. We visited two homes (one a working farm, the other a beautifully restored farm building and leisure garden). One used heat pump technology, and solar thermal, while the farm ran mostly on bio-fuels.

Aero might look quaint as if the world and time has passed it by, but, maybe they are just a bit ahead of their time.

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