FROM THE TOP of a 164-foot-tall metal shaft perched on the small Danish island of Samsø, the wind can just about suck the eyelashes off your face.
After climbing 140 ladder rungs, I'm gripping the railing inside the vibrating engine room, a bread-truck-size space at the tippy-top of a windmill that holds a series of gyrating generators. At the press of a button, the ceiling peels away, James Bond style, to reveal a cloudless sky, interrupted only by the regular rotations of three sleek, white, 88-foot-long blades.
The humming platform feels and sounds like a jet about to lift off, but all the kinetic energy ends up beside me in the ten-ton gearboxthere and in my hair. It's exhilarating, like riding a Harley through a hurricane. I'm almost tempted to burst into a Springsteen song. What I'm feeling at the base of my spine is the prevalent weather pattern roiling in from the North and Baltic seas: 20-mile-per-hour winds being converted into 463 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power more than 600 households this very moment.
And the view's nice, too.
I see the expanses of productive corn and pumpkin fields, the Ben & Jerryesque cows munching local silage among the sunflowers, the bike lanes, the sensible traffic flow, the traditional timber-frame and brick houses, including the one belonging to the proud farmer who owns this turbine. It's enough to make a New Urbanist weep. From up here, Samsøa dollop of land some 12 miles off the nation's main peninsulalooks like a marvel of social and natural engineering. To the south of me stand two more windmills; to the northeast, eight more, like pins on a military map, and about two miles offshore is a necklace of an additional ten.
The land turbines provide enough electricity for the entire Nantucket-size island of about 4,200 people. The clean power generated by the offshore turbines is just gravy; sold to the mainland, it more than atones for the amount of carbon dioxide that Samsø pumps into the air due to its use of "dirty energy" like petroleum, which fuels its cars and some home furnaces. In fact, Samsø has spent the past decade becoming an eco-wonderland, setting up wind, solar, biofuels, and other renewable technologies to satisfy its energy needs. The island has even gone beyond "carbon neutrality," the cherished environmental goal of zeroing out the production of CO2, the greenhouse gas most responsible for global warming.
Now, in addition to its renown as a land of new potatoes, Samsø enjoys the distinction of being the most carbon-negative settlement of its size on earth.
IT'S A RELIEF TO BE ON THE GREEN ISLE, a CO2-safe zone where, for once, my everyday habits won't add to climate change. I've come to Denmark determined to be an ultra-low-carbon traveler, but I spent my first few days in Copenhagen, where I really had to work at it. I rode a Dahon folding bike all over the place and calculated the CO2 output of every mile of public transport so I'd know how many trees to plant or clean-energy credits to buy when I got back home, to make up for my carbon transgressions. In the biggest sacrifice, I spent three nights sleeping in one room with 33 other people at the Sleep-in Green hostel in Copenhagen. I took to calling it the Can't-Sleep-in Green. So what if the bunk beds squeaked and the girls from Texas donned their boots at five in the morning (and left large canisters of hair products that simply would not sort into any of the dazzling array of recycling bins)? It was great for my planetary balance sheet: solar electricity, organic juices, energy-efficient lightbulbs, and minimal waste.