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The windy isles

The windy isles EOLICSA
06 Aug
The Galápagos islands take steps towards a fossil fuel-free future, as San Cristóbal’s wind and solar capacity is significantly expanded

On 16 January 2001, the tanker Jessica was delivering 240,000 gallons of diesel and intermediate fuel oil to a dispatch station on Baltra Island, Galápagos Islands, when it ran aground on Wreck Bay, San Cristóbal. Fuel began gushing from a tear in the ship’s hull, a serious threat to the sensitive ecosystem. Only the quick actions of the US coast guard and some favourable sea currents prevented the incident turning into a major environmental disaster.

It was the perfect illustration of the risks the islands were running on a regular basis, shipping large quantities of diesel over from the mainland in order to keep the then 18,000 (now 30,000) inhabitants’ lights on, and why, for several years, the government of Ecuador had been developing a project to begin construction of renewable energy sources on San Cristóbal, the second-largest of the islands. Completed in 2007, the San Cristóbal Wind Project (SCWP) now consists of three 51m-tall wind turbines and a pair of solar panels, which are estimated to have saved 8.7 million litres of diesel and 21,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over the last eight years and currently supply 30 per cent of the island’s energy needs.

Wind farms will not be more detrimental to petrels than other existing man-made structures

Now plans are afoot for a major expansion to the current operation, with the ultimate goal being the elimination of fossil fuels from the energy supply entirely. The plan is to meet the anticipated 60 per cent increase in electricity demand by 2024 by erecting a fourth turbine, alongside greater solar capacity and a battery storage system.

One concern in relation to the SCWP is whether additional wind turbines could have an adverse effect on the isolated bird populations of the 19 islands, including the famous blue-footed booby and the endemic Galápagos petrel, listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). A 2010 study by scientists affiliated with the Charles Darwin Foundation determined that ‘wind farms will not be more detrimental to petrels than other existing man-made structures’, largely thanks to the turbines being located on a hill known as El Tropezón, an agricultural area distant from nesting sites. No petrels are known to have been injured by wind turbines during the past eight years, however the study did propose the implementation of a monitoring program, to assess long-term effects.

This was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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