El Hierro becomes energy independent

Canary island inaugurates water and wind power plant that replaces old fuel-run facilities

Elena G. Sevillano
The newly inaugurated water and wind power plant in El Hierro.
The newly inaugurated water and wind power plant in El Hierro.Gelmert Finol (EFE)

The energy-independent future that El Hierro had been awaiting for more than three decades is finally here.

Friday marked the inauguration of a water and wind power plant that will enable the 10,000 or so residents of this Canary island to meet all their energy needs using renewable sources.

Plant managers say this makes El Hierro the first island to depend almost entirely on its own natural resources.

The transition also means that the government can save itself the €2 million that were required to keep the thermal plant of Llanos Blancos running on fuel.

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From now on, the new plant’s diesel engines will only start up in exceptional situations when there is not enough wind or water to produce all the energy that the island residents demand.

The new facilities have been designed in a way that makes the most of the peculiarities of El Hierro, a sparsely populated island with constant winds blowing in from the Atlantic and very uneven terrain.

The primary source of energy is a small wind farm with five turbines. When production exceeds demand, for instance at night, the excess energy is used to pump water from a sea-level tank up into a natural crater located 700 meters uphill. When the wind dies down, the water reserves are released down into a turbine that generates new electricity.

The plant cost €82 million to build, the news agency EFE reports. The company that runs it, Gorona del Viento El Hierro, is controlled by the local government, which holds a 60-percent stake, followed by energy company Endesa with 30 percent and the Canaries Technological Institute with 10 percent. Endesa is also the owner of the thermal plant.

The new system will avoid using around 6,000 tons of diesel a year and save over €1.8 million annually, said Gorona sources. It will also cut back on 18,700 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

The project has drawn attention from many international publications and has been held up as an example in sustainability forums.

“It bears noting that 17 million Europeans and 600 million people across the world live on islands, and they will all have El Hierro as a point of reference as to what the future of energy should look like,” said the company in a release.

The government, which has contributed €35 million to the project, left the plant out of cutbacks to renewable energy in January 2013. Instead, the plant is guaranteed a return of eight percent, well above the cost of traditional wind energy. Energy generation with the new plant was expected to be 23 percent cheaper than with the old fuel plant.

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