Tiny Spanish Island Nears Its Goal: 100 Percent Renewable Energy
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
A small, Spanish islands in the middle of the Atlantic has become one of the world's first self-sufficient islands in terms of energy. The island of El Hierro is part of Spain's Canary Islands - is going 100 percent renewable thanks to a mix of wind and hydroelectric power. Lauren Frayer traveled to the remote island to see how it all works.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At least one commercial jet flight, a propeller plane and a ferry. The irony is it actually takes quite a lot of fossil fuel power to reach the tiny, windy island of El Hierro. For me, it's a 12-hour trip from the Spanish mainland. Before Columbus set sail, this island was the westernmost point of the known world. The only way they got electricity here is by shipping in thousands of tons of diesel fuel by barge; an expensive and dirty endeavor until now.
I'm standing at about 1,800 feet above sea level on a rocky mountain that's become the centerpiece of this island - five massive, metal turbines, windmills that are powering the entire island's electricity.
JUAN MANUEL QUINTERO: (Through translator) They're 64 meters high. So just getting them onto the island and up this mountain was a logistical nightmare. They were split into three parts that each came into different ports. We had to widen the road to get them through.
FRAYER: Engineer Juan Manuel Quintero takes me around the Gorno del Viento powerplant, which by the end of this year, will generate 100 percent of the energy needed by this island's 10,000 residents.
QUINTERO: (Through translator) The plant consists of five windmills and two lakes; one at the top of the mountain and one below, connected with a big tube. So when there's enough wind, we use the windmills to power the island and to pump water from the bottom lake up to the top one. Then if the wind dies down, that water is released down through turbines and generates hydroelectric power.
FRAYER: Es tan simple. It's so simple and yet nobody did it before? (Spanish spoken).
QUINTERO: (Through translator) No, it's been done separately, but no one's ever combined water and wind. It's simple. The wind machines we basically ordered out of a catalog. We didn't invent the technology, same with the water turbines. The innovation we made is hooking up the two systems together.
FRAYER: The Spanish government, a local university and a Spanish power company helped with a total investment of $110 million.
GOVERNOR ALPIDIO ARMAS: We are lucky the crisis came when the project was almost finished.
FRAYER: Island governor Alpidio Armas says this is one of the last projects being approved before the financial crisis forced the government to cut all subsidies for renewable energy. El Hierro has long been a place people emigrated from. Now the governor hopes the power station will bring people back, make them proud of their island.
ARMAS: When they shine the light, they think of windmills moving and maybe they think we are different from the rest of the world because we are catching the electricity from the windmills and not from the conventional of engines.
FRAYER: (Spanish spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken).
FRAYER: Most residents I met shrugged and said they're fine with the powerplant, though, it doesn't lower their electricity costs. Those are set at a national level. But energy economist Gonazlo Escribano says the new power scheme has given this isolated community energy security for the future.
GONZALO ESCRIBANO: How much will be the price for oil in 20 years? We don't know. But we are sure that we will still have wind in the Canary Islands in 20 years' time. And the price or the cost to generate an additional gigawatt will be zero, just a very small cost regarding maintenance.
FRAYER: And El Hierro is already planning its next energy project. It wants all the island's cars to be electric by the year 2020. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer on El Hierro in Spain's Canary Islands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.