How the ‘end of the known world’ became a model for a sustainable world

A wind-hydro project commissioned last month turns El Hierro into a model for renewable energy

Farmers on El Hierro, the wind-battered island off Africa’s coast, long ago built fences of stone to shelter their goats and sheep from gusts billowing in from the Atlantic Ocean.  “Gorona del viento” is what locals here on the smallest of the Canary Islands call these semicircular windbreaks.

Today, El Hierro’s 11,000 residents aren’t buttressing themselves against the wind, they’re harnessing it: A new wind-hydro power installation has turned their rocky volcanic outpost into the world’s first island not connected to a mainland grid that’s capable of generating all its electricity from renewables.

The 85 million euro project, commissioned June 27, shows how inhabitants of El Hierro and the Spanish government that funded nearly half the work have turned to renewable energy to strengthen an island culture and economy reliant on organic agricultural, sustainable tourism and fishing.

Much of the electricity generated by five wind turbines and the pumped hydroelectric facility powers three El Hierro desalination plants whose water irrigates figs, almonds, vines, pineapples, mangoes, bananas, potatoes and other crops. Only under extraordinary circumstances will utility workers deploy the existing diesel plant, which relies on fuel shipments from the mainland.

UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

In 2000, El Hierro was named a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, with nearly two-thirds of its territory protected. The goal is to help preserve the remote island’s environment as well as support sustainable fishing and traditional agricultural and ranching.

With the new wind and hydropower project, the island’s inhabitants – and about 60,000 eco-tourists who visit annually – will largely wean themselves from 40,000 barrels of crude oil they’ve brought in for years by ship. That will save about $2 million annually on fuel costs, according to estimates.

ABB motors, drives, transformers, medium-voltage switchgear, a protection system and controls help electrify and run hydroelectric pumped storage plant as well as integrate energy generated by wind and hydropower turbines into their island microgrid.

Consequently, El Hierro residents will slash their greenhouse gas emissions to nearly nothing and become a model for sustainable development worldwide.

Ask the goats: El Hierro’s wind blows a lot

The island’s five turbines are now its main source of power. Ask the goats: The wind is virtually always blowing here.

When electricity production outstrips demand of residents, the desalination plants and irrigation, the excess electricity will be used to pump water from a reservoir at sea level about 2,200 feet up to another storage site inside a volcanic crater. Come a rare lull, the water is then released through pipes into a turbine to generate electricity.

El Hierro has a remarkable history, even if it weren’t the vanguard of sustainability. Columbus stopped here for supplies 522 years ago on his voyage to the Americas. For the Italian explorer’s contemporaries, it was literally the end of the known world.

Even before then, the Greek mathematician Ptolemy declared El Hierro the “Prime Meridian,” to help sailors navigate.

Wind: From a foe to be reckoned with to reliable ally

Now, it’s become a navigational point for a new breed of explorers: Those pursuing innovative solutions for communities that preserve the earth’s finite resources for future generations.

An interesting side note: Those stone windbreaks that El Hierro’s shepherds once piled high to shelter their livestock? They’ve lent this energy project their name, “Gorona del Viento El Hierro.”

This illustrates how renewable energy technology is transforming El Hierro residents’ relationship with the wind, from what was once an adversary to be rebuffed by walls of stone into force to rely on, helping islanders take control of their destiny and live as they choose.

In addition to its work on El Hierro, ABB delivers equipment including solar inverters, energy storage and control systems for island microgrids around the world, including Kodiak Island in Alaska, Portugal’s Faial Island in the Azores and Mauritius, some 2,000 miles off Africa’s coast in the Indian Ocean.

Image credit: Bjoern Hoernitz under CC license via Flickr

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About the author

John-Philip Miller

I’m the senior editor in ABB’s group corporate communications team, in Zurich. For most of my career I’ve been a reporter, at Bloomberg News in Zurich and then for the last 10 years at The Associated Press in Idaho.
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