At the moment, the project that will transform the future of El Hierro doesn’t look like much more than a hole in the ground.
Or two, 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 scrub that grows so abundantly on this volcanic island.
But when this innovative wind-power system goes online at the end of 2011, it will turn El Hierro, the easternmost of Spain’s Canary Islands, into the first inhabited landmass in the world to become completely energy self-sufficient. And that’s just the first step in a plan that may make the island the most sustainable place on Earth.
Sound ambitious? Consider the source. El Hierro is located over 750 miles (1,200 km) from the Spanish mainland, and its stark, volcanic landscape harbors no coal or fossil fuels. Fresh water is scarce, and for electricity, its population of 10,000 has long depended on the diesel brought in weekly by tanker. Which is why, some 25 years ago, the islanders began thinking about ways to convert to renewable energy, using the two resources that they actually have a lot of: wind and water. Now, with oil supplies dwindling worldwide and the Fukushima disaster offering an all-too-present reminder of the perils of nuclear energy, El Hierro’s hydro-eolic plant looks positively prescient.