Originally announced in 2011, El Hierro's plan to utilize renewable energy was facilitated by Swiss-Swedish power company ABB. The facilities, which are largely automated, offset a staggering 18,200 tons of CO2 simply by negating the need for oil to be transported to the tiny Island, the southernmost of the Canaries.
The wind turbines, which are monitored by ABB, are actually sufficient to meet the residential power needs of El Hierro by themselves. Excess power that they generate also helps to pump water to a volcanic crater 2,300 feet above sea level, where it is stored. During period of slow wind, the water can be released into the Island's hydroelectric generators, ensuring that the system can consistently meet demand. As The Huffington Post notes, the integration of the two systems allows ABB's system to maintain a consistent frequency and voltage, which enables the plants to serve the needs of the island despite the natural fluctuations in power supply that emanate from a wind-driven platform.
Prior to the implementation of the project, El Hierro imported nearly 40,000 barrels of crude oil annually, at a cost of $4 Million. The project has resulted in complete energy independence for the island, which boasts about 11,000 permanent residents, as well as a variable number of tourists.
The project is part of a dramatic shift in Spain toward renewable energy sources. In 2013, wind power accounted for 53,926 gigawatt hours of electricity, 21.1% of all energy used on the Spanish peninsula. Hydroelectric power was also 16% higher than the historical average, largely due to high levels of rainfall over the course of the year. 32,205 Gigawatt hours of electricity were generated by hydroelectric plants in Spain during 2013.
El Hierro isn't alone in benefiting from renewable energy sources. The Danish island of Samsø, located 15km off the Jutland Peninsula, has been working to establish its energy independence since 1997, when it won a government competition to establish itself as a model renewable community. As Inhabit notes, 21 wind turbines have been constructed since then, to service the energy needs of the roughly 4,000 people who call the island home. At just 48 kilometers long and half that in width, Samsø is considered one of the most successful sustainable energy projects in the world. Much like El Hierro, solar panels and wood-fired heating augment the energy needs of the island's 22 villages.
What is transpiring on El Hierro and Samsø is a window into the future of renewable energy, and its ability to augment and replace traditional municipal grids. With green power islands being considered in places like Denmark, Bahrain, and even Tampa, Florida, and wind farms taking root all over the United States, Renewable energy is now more accessible than ever.