El Hierro wind plant escapes moratorium

Project is aiming to produce 80 percent of the Canary island's energy needs

The wind-power plant on the Canary Island of El Hierro.
The wind-power plant on the Canary Island of El Hierro.

The wind-power plant on El Hierro, a pioneering project that aims to produce 80 percent of the Canary island's energy needs, is about to clear its first hurdle. The Industry Ministry has issued an order furnishing the National Energy Commission with the necessary funds to press ahead with the ongoing project. When in service, energy production will be 23-percent cheaper on El Hierro than under the current fuel-based system.

The mechanisms of a wind-power plant fit perfectly into the climatology of El Hierro, an island of 10,000 inhabitants exposed to the high winds of the Atlantic. Even a small plant, with five German-designed turbines with an 11.5-megawatt capacity, would produce sufficient electricity for the island's needs. When demand is low - generally at night - excess energy would be used to pump water from a reservoir to another located 682 meters higher. When demand rises, the water would be released on to a hydroelectric turbine to generate electricity.

The plant could be capable of meeting 83 percent of the island's energy needs

The company behind the project, Gorona del Viento - in which the inter-island government of the Canaries (60 percent), Endesa (30 percent) and Canary Islands Technology Institute (10 percent) are joint shareholders - calculates that the plant will be capable of generating 39 gigawatts an hour throughout the year. That would meet 83 percent of the island's energy needs, with peaks of 100 percent during the summer months. The chief executive of Gorona del Viento, Juan Manuel Quintero, said the plant's cost is 74 million euros, with 35 million coming from government subsidies.

According to Quintero, the plant is ready. "All that's left to do is the wiring and the tests." What was missing, however, was the money. Last January, the Industry Ministry imposed a moratorium on renewable energy expenditure that left the El Hierro project hanging in the wind.

But El Hierro has been the example used by Spain to represent its commitment to renewable energy. And now, the ministerial order will guarantee a payment of 236 euros per megawatt produced - far higher than conventional wind energy. Quintero says this is because El Hierro is not a standard wind-energy project: "The construction of a tunnel to avoid negative environmental impact made the project more costly." Quintero says that all being well, the plant will be up and running in a few months.

The money guaranteed to Gorona del Viento by the government is good news for renewable-energy producers affected by cutbacks in subsidies to the sector. "We think it's a very good sign that the Industry Ministry has made clear for the first time reasonable recompense for a generation plant and it should apply the same to all technologies instead of applying retroactive cutbacks," said renewable energy producer Jorge Morales.

Another Spanish project faces a bleaker future. The European Commission in December announced a 70-million-euro aid package for a plant that would mix thermosolar and biomass energies in Badajoz. The project had been abandoned by Spain in 2010 when it decided to finance a thermosolar plant with US assistance, as revealed in the WikiLeaks cables. Without government subsidies the plant is unviable, according to sources within the project, meaning Spain will have to pass up the EU's financial offer.

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