Magazine article Geographical

The Winds of Change: As the Smallest of the Canary Islands, El Hierro Is Easily Overlooked by the Millions That Flock to Its Sun-Drenched Bigger Neighbours. but for the 10,000 People That Live There, an Aggressive Policy of Pursuing Self-Sustainable Energy Might Just Be the Key to Unlocking a New Breed of Eco-Tourists. Sarah Gilbert Reports

Magazine article Geographical

The Winds of Change: As the Smallest of the Canary Islands, El Hierro Is Easily Overlooked by the Millions That Flock to Its Sun-Drenched Bigger Neighbours. but for the 10,000 People That Live There, an Aggressive Policy of Pursuing Self-Sustainable Energy Might Just Be the Key to Unlocking a New Breed of Eco-Tourists. Sarah Gilbert Reports

Article excerpt

A few kilometres on from the viewpoint of Mirador de Basco on the island of El Hierro's western edge, sits The Sabinar. The most famous of a group of ancient, wild juniper trees in the unpopulated area of La Dehesa, it looks like a primitive sculpture, its leaves sweeping the ground, its trunk twisted and bent by the constant battle with the high winds.

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It's illustrative of the fact that climate dominates this windswept, volcanic island, the smallest and youngest of the Canaries. At 278 kilometres square and just 1.2 million years old, El Hierro is a heart-shaped rock formation in the Atlantic Ocean around 500 kilometres as the crow flies off the northwest coast of Africa.

Now this diminutive island is attempting to harness the vast power of these winds in order to produce clean, sustainable energy for its 10,000-strong population, becoming the first island in the world to be self-sufficient for electrical energy in the process.

ISOLATED GROWTH

In many ways, the geology of El Hierro has meant that conservation has always been an integral part of its culture. Historically, there's always been a lack of water here. With no lakes or rivers, the Bimbaches - the island's pre-Hispanic inhabitants who survived by farming, fishing and foraging - had to find ways of collecting fresh rainwater to withstand drought and constructed cisterns (or albercas).

The island's topography means that fog often settles in the hills and the ever inventive Bimbache discovered a way of milking it using the Garoe tree, considered sacred because its leaves were capable of collecting enough water to supply the whole island. It was felled by a hurricane in the 17th century, but was replaced by another laurel in 1949.

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El Hierro has suffered many droughts and throughout its history people were often forced to emigrate to the bigger neighbouring islands or, as transport technology developed, further afield to Cuba, Argentina and Venezuela.

The island's relative isolation may have slowed the development of El Hierro's infrastructure - it didn't get its first paved road until 1965. But since 1997, many of the inhabitants have been committed to following a sustainable development programme that includes architecture, agriculture, water management and recycling. For more than 30 years, many here have dreamt of producing 100 per cent of their own renewable energy.

'Until the early 1970s, El Hierro only had electricity from dusk to midnight, and only in the capital Valverde and El Pinar,' says Tomas Padron, a now retired industrial technical engineer and the head of the Cabildo, the island council, from 1979 to 2011. As well as the environmental cost of using fossil fuels, supplying the island is expensive and unreliable - diesel arrives by boat from the neighbouring, much larger island of Tenerife, around 200 kilometres away.

In the 1980s, the first ideas about combining a wind park with a pumped hydro system were discussed within UNELCO, El Hierro's electric utility company at the time, but the plans were put aside in 1985 and it was only Padron's vision that kept it alive. 'At first we struggled to convince the local authorities, the Spanish Government and the European Commission,' he says. 'But I had faith in this project, I believed in it and had the dedication and tenacity to follow it through.'

ENERGY INVESTMENT

When Brussels finally offered its support in 2000, in the form of [euro]2million ([pounds sterling]1.7million), the plan started to become a reality. At a cost of [euro]82million, funded in part by [euro]35million from the Spanish Government in 2007 and a [euro]30million bank loan, the island started building the pilot of the hydro-wind project in 2009. The Gorona del Viento plant was officially inaugurated on 27 June 2014, and a year later it was a working energy plant, its three stakeholders being El Hierro Island Council (65. …

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