100% renewables is impossible…and the world is flat. 

Up until Christopher Columbus sailed west, El Hierro was believed to be the last land before the end of the world. Sea monsters loomed on the horizon ready to devour ships and those audacious enough to journey into the unknown would fall off the edge into oblivion.

El Hierro was your last chance to turn back. 

El Hierro is the most westerly island of the Canary Islands, a speck of Spain off the coast of Africa where close to 11,000 people make their home. It is one of the world's key bio-sphere reserves with innumerable microclimates, very little fresh water, amazing people, incredible tourist infrastructure with only a few tourists, some of the best diving in the world, great food, amazing drink, and they have done the impossible.

As of June 26th, 2014 they are powered by a portfolio of 100% renewable energy.


How did I end up on El Hierro? 

Six months ago while contemplating a much-needed vacation and searching for inspiration for Ontario's 20/20 Roadmap I was reading one of my favourite novels, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, by Orson Scott Card. It is, as all good science fiction is, a commentary on the here and now and how our choices impact the future. It delves into how values and ideas create or undermine our collective prosperity and how those with a vision for a better future can change the course of history averting tragedy while creating a world of hope and healing.

It is a story about 20/20 hindsight and what those from the future might do if they could reach back in time to help guide us as we face crucial choices for this and future generations.

It was fitting then, that as I read about Columbus landing on the Canary Islands, I received word from colleagues around the world about the inauguration of the world's first self-reliant 100% renewable powered island, El Hierro.

I knew then that I had to be there to meet the people who are reshaping reality. So I decided to use up my banked holidays, dipping into my personal savings, to witness the impossible. My trip to El Hierro was about recharging my batteries and bringing their story home for inspiration to share with you as we develop and implement our 20/20 Roadmap here in Ontario to power, heat, cool and move our prosperity, creating good jobs, resilient communities and healthy environments.


We already have the technology, we need the vision and will


Despite our infatuation with our toys, whether it be smart phones, cars, computers, batteries, windmills or nuclear reactors, our most powerful technology is our culture. It is how we see the world that defines what is possible, real…normal. It is a change in our culture that will enable us to use the tools already at our disposal.

The people of El Hierro envisioned a new possibility for their island community and have achieved self-reliance supplying their electricity demand with a combination of wind and hydro-power. 


The Kombikraftwerk or combined power plant portfolio approach to meeting demand

Germany's Fraunhofer Institute has been working with companies like Enercon and Siemens developing combined power plants using portfolio's of sustainable energy like wind, solar, biogas and hydro power and has shown that it works.

In fact Denmark has already tackled the combined power plant approach back in the 80's, albeit using a different mix in its portfolio. For years, largely community owned combined heat and power plants paired with electric boilers, have been used to meet local residential and manufacturing heating needs, while provide the quick reacting capacity required to firm up the variability of wind. Wind power now provides more than 30% of Denmarks demand.


El Heirro's Gorona del Viento combined power plant: Wind and hydro

There are innumerable combinations that can be used to create a combined power plant: wind, demand management, combined heat and power, electric boilers, hydro, solar, bio-energy, different types of storage and other solutions. On El Hierro thanks to the geography and climatic patterns they have chosen a combination of wind and hydro generation, converting an intermittent source, the power of the wind, to a constant and controlled supply that can respond upon demand.

Surplus power from the five windmills that is not used by the population is used to pump water between a lower and upper reservoir. When necessary the accumulated water in the upper tank is released reversing the hydraulic pumps turning them into generators, producing electricity in times of wind shortage.


A Community Power Project

The project is named Gorona del Viento and is owned 60% by the island's municipal government, 30% by the private power company Endesa and 10% by the Canary Islands Technological Institute. The project has received significant seed funding from the Spanish government's Institute for Diversification and Saving Energy under the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism in recognition of the benefits the project will provide in savings, in helping reduce green house gas emissions and in increased self-reliance. It is a perfect example of how government, community, the private sector and educational institutions can work together.


What are the highlights?

This ground breaking project will help the people of El Hierro avoid:

  • The annual consumption of 40,000 barrels of oil (6,000 tons of diesel), worth 1.8 million Euros a year (about $2.56 million Canadian)
  • Transfer payments for this fuel from the Spanish government (imagine what this type of project could do for our remote communities in the North!)
  • The emission of 18,700 tons of CO2 per year
  • The annual emission of 100 tons of sulfur dioxide and 400 tons of nitrogen oxides


So what is next for El Hierro?

As part of their sustainability plan the people of El Hierro are looking beyond their electricity grid at how to improve the rest of their energy and water system. Electric water heaters are being replaced increasingly with solar thermal systems, strategies for harvesting the fog in the higher climbs to produce drinking water to reduce pressure on the desalinization facilities are being explored based on traditional methods and the ambitious goal of replacing the 4,500 gas powered cars on the island with electric vehicles is already being tackled.


Electric Vehicles

Infrastructure for electric cars is already being piloted on El Hierro with full island coverage planned and estimated to cost $90 million. Recuperation of these capital costs should only take ten years if the cost to fill up with electricity is sold at the same cost as gasoline and diesel. The info-graphic below demonstrates why we should also be taking a serious look at building out our electric car infrastructure as well.


What can we learn from El Hierro?

First of all that community is key. The local's vision, buy in and benefit is what made this project possible. The people of El Hierro have shown that a small community of 11,000 people can have a significant impact and meet their needs reliably with renewables.

Secondly, that partnerships with the public and private sectors can help communities create a win win all around.

Thirdly, that we should be procuring portfolios of sustainable energy to meet specific kilowatt hour, megawatt hour or Terrawatt hour needs that can provide firm and flexible power, shave peak demand and maximize economic, social and environmental benefits.

Fourthly, that many of our existing generation, storage and demand management assets could be used to demonstrate what new portfolios of combined power plants could look like in Ontario.

Fifthly, that many of our diesel dependent communities could meet there needs differently, securing significant benefits in savings, reduced environmental impact and increased self sufficiency.

Lastly (though there are more lessons I will write about later), that we need to really look at our options instead of buying the rhetoric that the existing supply mix makes sense.


The Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA) is championing a prosperous Ontario with a thriving sustainable energy sector, good jobs, resilient communities and healthy environments powered, heated, cooled and moved by portfolios of sustainable energy by raising public awareness, advising decision makers and establishing forums for new market opportunities and collaboration.


By Kristopher Stevens