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ENVIRONMENT: Galapagos Islands in Search of Clean Energy

Stephen Leahy* - Tierramérica

TORONTO, Feb 29 2008 (IPS) - Ecuador has taken the first step towards ending the oil dependence of its Galápagos Islands, in the eastern Pacific Ocean, with the official opening of a 10.8 million dollar wind energy facility on the island of San Cristóbal.

Ecuador&#39s President Rafael Correa toured the facility as part of a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Galápagos, and proposed to declare the islands fossil fuel free by 2015.

Located 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, the archipelago comprises 17 small and 13 large islands that are home to 30,000 people and visited by more than 120,000 tourists each year.

Nearly everything is imported from the mainland, including vast quantities of diesel fuel for energy and transport. In 2001, a tanker ship struck a reef off the coast of San Cristóbal, one of the main islands, spilling 150,000 gallons of fuel into the ocean.

Fortunately, currents carried the destructive fuel out to sea, and away from the other islands, saving vast numbers of coastal and marine plant and animal species that exist nowhere else in the world.

This close call with environmental catastrophe led Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States to form a partnership with Ecuador, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and nine of the world&#39s largest electric companies to build the San Cristóbal Wind Project.

"Fifty percent of the island&#39s energy now comes from the three 800 kilowatt turbines," says Jim Tolin, project manager.

Diesel supplies the rest of the energy for San Cristóbal&#39s 6,100 residents, Tolin told Tierramérica.

Approximately half of the investment in the wind project came from the U.S.-based American Electric Power, while Ecuador contributed 3.2 million dollars, and another million came from different entities of the United Nations. The partners established a trust to help finance the operation and maintenance of the wind power facility.

Tourism is booming, making the Galápagos one of the fastest growing local economies in Latin America. But that growth is seriously threatening its unique ecology, which had remained isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years.

Although 97 percent of the archipelago is protected and was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), a report from that agency warns that tourism, illegal immigration and fishing and invasive species are putting the Galápagos at serious risk.

As a result, President Correa declared a state of emergency for the islands, appointed a new provincial governor and restricted flights, tourism and residence permits. A new photo identification transit control card will be required for all visitors in 2008.

The San Cristóbal Wind Project went through extensive environmental assessments and modifications to minimise the impact on the rare creatures of the islands.

New locations for the three wind turbines had to be found when it was determined that they would be too close to the nesting areas of the highly endangered long-winged Galápagos petrel (Pterodroma phaeopygia).

The petrels spend the daylight hours fishing at sea and only return to the island at night. Until now little was known about their flight paths. "We had people spend months with night vision goggles to observe the night-time flight paths of the petrels," Tolin said.

An independent committee assessed the data and helped determined the safest locations for the turbines. Residents and tourist operators were also involved in finding a site that is shrouded in mist much of the year to minimise the visual impact of the turbines, he said.

Three kilometres of transmission lines were also buried underground to safeguard the birds.

No bats or birds have been killed since the turbines began operating last October, according to the project manager.

"From day one, the overriding concern was the need to protect this invaluable place and its incredible biodiversity," says Michael G. Morris, chief executive of American Electric Power.

The San Cristóbal Wind Project is the first stage of an umbrella programme supported by Ecuador and UNDP that will eventually bring renewable electricity – hybrid wind-diesel with some photovoltaic (solar) – to the archipelago&#39s five inhabited islands.

Last week, the construction of a 3.2 megawatt wind-solar energy facility with biofuel powered generators was announced for the island of Santa Cruz.

Energy savings will also be part of the overall plan. Old refrigerators use a huge amount of energy and it would be cost-effective to replace these with new, more efficient ones, suggests Tolin. He also recommends replacing diesel vehicles with electric-powered vehicles that would be charged overnight when there is plenty of excess capacity of wind-generated electricity.

But one thorny problem for the quest to end the Galápagos oil addiction is that the price of diesel fuel is subsidised by the Ecuadorian government, so it costs the same there as it would in Quito.

"Remove the subsidies and electricity from wind turbines would be competitive," Tolin says.

(*Stephen Leahy is an IPS correspondent. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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