El Hierro, a tiny Spanish island off the west coast of Africa, has done away with fossil fuels. In just a few months time, the entire island will be running on 100 percent renewable energy - from the power of wind and water.
According to journalist Lauren Frayer at NPR, the 278 kilometre squared island, with a population of just over 10,000 people, is billing itself as the world’s first energy self-sufficient island that's never been hooked up to a power grid. Not that it was ever actually logistically possible to hook El Hierro up to Spain’s power grid, because of the topography of the surrounding sea bed, so the residents have had to figure out a different way.
First they tried importing almost 7,000 tonnes of diesel fuel to power their various electricity generators, but that wasn’t a long-term solution, being a super-expensive, drawn-out process that harms the environment. So over the past 12 months they started integrating a $110 million wind and water turbine farm, called Gorona del Viento, into their power supply. "By the end of this year, the plant will generate all of the island's energy needs of up to 48 gigawatt hours per year,” reports NPR.
Gorona del Viento is made up of five huge windmills and two lakes. Most of the time there’s ample wind to power the windmills, but when there’s not, water from the lakes is pumped through the turbines to generate hydro-power. And the plant is fitted with a sensor that will identify within five seconds if the wind is starting to die down and kick the hydro power into gear, so there’s never a dip in the supply.
Engineer Juan Manuel Quintero, who serves on the board of the Gorona del Viento plant, told Frayer at NPR that the technology they use to harvest energy from the wind and water isn’t new or revolutionary, but the way they’ve integrated the two is the secret to their success. "The wind machines, we basically ordered out of catalog; we didn't invent the technology. Same with the water turbines. The innovation we made is hooking up the two systems together," he said.
"When [El Hierro residents] turn on the light, they think of the windmills moving and maybe they think, 'We are different than the rest of the world, because we are catching electricity from these windmills and not from conventional engines,'" adds president of the El Hierro island council, Alpidio Armas.
Now that the island is completely powered by renewable energy, El Hierro is setting their next energy project in motion - all cars on the island will by electric by 2020.