El Hierro is the smallest of the Canary Islands, but next month it will make big waves when it becomes the first island in the world to go completely energy self-sufficient through a combination of wind and water power. Certainly, other islands have developed sustainable energy options, but none of them have gone off the grid entirely.
What aids El Hierro in this venture is its volcanic topography. Full of mountains that rise sharply from the sea (the tallest reaches 1,500 meters) and buffeted by strong Atlantic gusts, the island has the perfect terrain for a wind farm. The trouble with wind energy, however, is that sometimes the wind doesn't blow. Even though a study calculated that the new Gorona del Viento wind power plant will be able to supply 158% of the island's current electricity demand -- including that of 10,000 residents and three energy-hungry desalination plants -- there's no cheap way to store the excess electricity.
So when the wind disappears, so does the power supply.
To bridge that gap in supply, the island has built a hydroelectric plant. With the surplus energy generated by the wind farm, water from a reservoir near the harbor will be pumped into a larger reservoir located 682 meters higher up in a volcanic crater. When the wind drops, the water will be released down a channel through five turbines to generate energy. The higher reservoir acts like a spare battery. If all else fails, the island's existing diesel plant will provide emergency backup.
"The true novelty of El Hierro is that technicians have managed, without being connected to any national network, to guarantee a stable production of electricity that comes 100% from renewable energy, overcoming the intermittent nature of the wind," said Alain Gioda, a climate historian at France's IRD science research institute.
The project cost €80 million, and is a public-private affair -- the local council owns 60%, Spanish energy company Endesa owns 30%, and a technology institute owns 10%.
The local government expects annual revenue from the plant to be between €1 million and €3 million. "These are revenues that can go to the local residents to subsidize water prices, infrastructure, social policies," said Alpidio Armas, president of the local council.
The idea of energy independence in El Hierro took shape in the late 1980s when the local government proposed a sustainable development agenda that respected the island's heritage, even as it seemed "to go against the social and economic dynamics in the Canary Islands [at the time]," said Tomás Padrón, former President of the El Hierro district council. Those dynamics were looking to attract mass tourism and ride a building boom.
Once the Gorona del Viento power plant comes online at the end of June, ramping up to its full 11.5 megawatt capacity over several months, El Hierro's environmental impact will change dramatically. The island will save 40,000 barrels of oil shipped to the island each year at a cost of €1.8 million. It will cut 18,700 tons of CO2 emissions, 100 tons of sulfur dioxide, 400 tons of NOx, and 7 tons of particulates (the equivalent of 1,000 buses driving 280 laps around the island each).
The island, already designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, hopes to extend its green credentials by switching its 6,000 vehicles to all electric by 2020, as part of an alliance with Renault-Nissan.
There's also hope that El Hierro's experiment, which has already garnered interest from officials in Hawaii, Aruba, Denmark's Samso Island, and Japan's Oki, can spur others to follow suit. Projections suggest that 1,000 islands around the world could adopt the same energy approach.
what is possible El Hierro is a fascinating place, thanks for this article. It just shows what can be done with a little optimism. I think we could do much in the UK (an island nation of course) if we commited more 'energy' to going green. We are happy to have electric pylons scattering the countryside but hate wind turbines, which are not much more visually intrusive and dont have dangerous cables full of high voltage electricity. We have to move on from centralised energy. Its the only way forward.
Re: Hybrid electricity @Resurgent Phoenix, I think long-range planning is incompatible with the short attention span so evident in modern life. I remember a book called "The Five Minute Manager" which claimed that efficient managers should divide their day into five minute chunks and never spend more than that amount on any one task, problem, or employee. I think that's become the way we live our lives, for the most part, and it's hard to plan for the long term when you only think in these tiny intervals.
Re: Fascinating @Resurgent Phoenix, I think you have a excellent idea. Increasing diversity in transportation and architecture by adapting to the local environment would make travel not only more interesting but also more efficient. It's a win-win situation.
It's time we stop forcing our surroundings to fit our mold, and instead fit ourselves to what is around us.
Re: Fascinating I agree energy solutions should be developed in cooperate with the location and environment. Do you think transportation and structures should also be built with those considerations. This would make traveling more interesting as regional diversity is re introduced.
Re: Hybrid electricity New Dream, I would add to APATHY, the "It is all about me, here and now". We need to enjoy our lives but also take action to insure the children will have a fair and good life. What happened to long range planning?
Re: Hybrid electricity @NewDream, you are right that as national Governments appear unable to grasp this nettle it would make perfect sense to apply these ideas on a local level. I guess it works best when a strong minded influential individual or group can see the benefit. In the case of El Hierro perhaps the importation of 40,000 barrels of diesel and a $1.8 million dollar bill put things into focus.
Here in the UK most communities have strong lobby groups to prevent the construction of on-shore wind turbines as they 'ruin the countryside and are noisy'. In 2009 the village of Fintry in Scotland went the other way and supported a wind farm to be developed in the area provided that the developer built an extra turbine for the community.
This forward thinking provided an income stream for the community which allows revenue from the turbine to reduce fuel poverty and introduce new facilities for the community.
Why isn't this happening all over the UK? .... I think you're right in many cases it's apathy, and in others resistance to change, in all cases it's lack of imagination about the real benefits of new, more sustainable, technologies.
Fascinating I think this touches on a few critical points for renewable energy implementaiton. First, I like that they have made use of multiple renewable systems. Combining both wind and water power offers redundancy, and I think at this stage in the game it's a critical element to the system. In the event the wind is blowing, they have a backup plan. In the event the water runs out, they have a diesel plant. Contingency plans are in place.
The other reality here is their physical terrain conducive to wind. Not everyplace can say the same, though the US in particular has many regions that it would be sensible.
It was interesting they avoided solar as an option, even as a backup plan. I feel it's ingenious how they used the land and terrain they had to steer their decisions. This should be done all ove the world. Engineering a resvoir up a volcano crater to slowly release water in a controlled setting to spin turbines is simple, yet vital. Nicely done.
Re: Hybrid electricity A very interesting energy solution for islanders and the local governments on them. I wonder if the concept could be applied to landlocked smaller areas as well in suitable geologic areas elsewhere. The small population (6000 vehicles on the island) certainly must be taken into consideration when looking at the costs, but if wind, water and vehicle conversions seem appropriate, it sounds like a good plan to proceed.
Re: Energy Independent Island States @susan: Well yes, in that sense they had abundant natural resources and a big hole in the ground on top of a hill. Whats not to like? I am off to Scotland soon where they have those same resources but in general little wind turbines as there are too many objections to putting towers on sacred moorland or atop the great glens.....someone has to make some tough decisions.
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