The Spanish island of El Hierro (nicknamed the "Meridian Island") intends to become the first inhabited landmass that is completely energy self-sufficient. El Hierro will be combining the two abundant resources that will never abate, regardless of weather, to create energy.
Located 750 miles off the coast of the Spanish mainland (the easternmost point of the Canary Islands), El Hierro is a mountainous, volcanic island with no coal or fossil fuels. Currently, fresh water and diesel are brought in weekly by tanker. But by the end of 2011 their dependence on outside fuel sources will come to an end as an innovative wind-power system goes online.
"At first, it was simply an issue of becoming more self-sufficient," says Tomas PadrÓn, president of the Island Council, whose role is similar to that of a mayor's. "We were completely dependent on outside deliveries and could be cut off at a moment's notice. But then with the global-energy crisis, and climate change, and everything else that's happened, we've realized it has a lot more value."
At the moment, the project looks more like a hole in the ground than a self-sustaining island. Or two holes, to be exact: one on top of a mountain, another smaller one down below, and in between, a long stretch of pipeline tinted the same color as the local scrub.
Five windmills on the northeastern end of the island will power a pumping station that, when the wind is blowing, will drive water 2,300 feet uphill, from a small, 5 million-cubic-foot reservoir down by the shore to a larger, 19 million-cubic-foot reservoir tucked into one of the island's volcanic craters. When the wind is not as abundant, water from the top depository will be released, along 1.8 miles of mostly camouflaged pipes, into the bottom one, and the pressure of that falling water will drive six hydraulic turbines.
"If we don't want to depend on fossil fuel, we have to have steady input and output," says Gonzalo Piernavieja, director of research and development for the Technological Institute of the Canaries, which designed the plant. "And the only way to do that is through massive storage. In this case, we're using nature's gifts, wind and sea water, for storage."
The plant will produce 48 GW/h (gigawatt hours), enabling the island to conserve some 6,000 tons of diesel per year, and to meet 100% of its energy needs by 2015. And by that time, the island will be well into its next sustainability projects. One of them, already underway, is a plan convert all 4,500 of El Hierro's cars to electric; the same municipal company, Gorona del Viento, that is building the new hydroeolic station will supply car batteries powered by excess energy from the plant. "The whole system will be integrated," says Javier Morales, El Hierro's councilman for sustainability. "It's beyond green. When the power plant and the car system interact, it will be like galaxies colliding."
Unlike most of the Canary Island economies which depend on tourism, El Hierro remains largely dependant on its primary exports of pineapples and mangoes. The farmers are also looking to become more “green-friendly.” The island's agricultural cooperatives have signed a plan to convert their fields to organic production over the next eight years. They will be connected to a "biodigester" that converts sewage into both methane (which can then be used as fuel) and fertilizer.
But if El Hierro's problems are particular, its solutions don't have to be, say officials. "Absolutely this technology can be applied elsewhere," says Morales about the power station, whose upper reservoir is currently being lined with massive sheets of PVC in preparation for the first water pumping. "Hawaii, for example. We're already advising them." That's something that another volcanic archipelago, notably larger but perhaps newly aware of the limits of conventional energy, might want to look into.