Case Study: El Hierro

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

El Hierro Island1

El Hierro is a volcanic island within Spain’s Canary Islands chain off the west coast of Africa. Though the smallest of the Canary’s seven major Islands, El Hierro has an incredibly diverse landscape and a great variety of plant and animal life. From volcanic cones and solidified lava flows, to pine forests and lush grasslands, El Hierro is home to rare animal species like the White-tailed Laurel Pigeon and the giant Galliotia Sim lizard. In 2000, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named El Hierro a Biosphere Reserve, thus protecting 60% of the island’s pristine territory.

Before Columbus sailed past El Hierro in 1492, the island was considered the most westerly point of land on Earth. When Ptolemy (90AD-168AD) developed the idea of a prime meridian in the second century, he drew the first line through what we now call the Canary Islands.

An early 17th century map showing Ptolemy’s prime meridian passing just off Africa’s west coast.1

Following Ptolemy’s lead, map makers from the second to the sixteenth centuries placed El Hierro at the end of the known world. Today, El Hierro is no longer at the furthest edge of Earth’s landmass; instead, it is at the cutting edge of human attempts to create communities that rely entirely on sustainable, clean energy. Since 1996, El Hierro has worked steadily at becoming the first energy-independent island in the world that is powered only by renewable energy sources.

Closer Look

Take a short tour of beautiful El Hierro Island.

How could the 10,000 people on this small 278 sq. km. island imagine such an ambitious goal? They did it by coming together and--with help from neighbors in the Canary Islands, Spain, and the European Union—directing their scientific know-how, moral will, and spiritual commitment toward meeting their energy needs with nature, not from nature. The Gorona del Viento El Hierro consortium was formed in 1996. It included islanders, faculty and students from the Canary Islands Institute of Technology, consultants from the Spanish utility company Endesa, and representatives of the Spanish government.

Wind turbine on El Hierro1

All participants were focused on shifting the island’s energy source from diesel-powered generators (that used 6,600 tons of diesel fuel and emitted 8,700 tons of CO2 annually) to a wind and water turbine farm that would use no fossil fuels and emit no CO2.

Today, the Gorona del Viento Power Plant is a closed-loop wind and water system with five windmills and two water reservoirs. Harnessing the Atlantic Ocean’s near-constant winds, the windmills combined capacity of 11.5 megawatts is designed to provide islanders with daily electricity while also powering three water desalination plants. When surplus power is generated, it pumps water 700 meters above sea level into an upper reservoir that is an extinct, sealed-off volcano crater. If the wind stops or demand for electricity is high, water from the 500,000 cubic meter upper reservoir is released. The descending water passes through turbines that produce up to 11.3 megawatts of hydro-electric power. The water is collected in a lower reservoir and pumped back to the higher basin, ready for release when needed.

Harnessing energy in this way aligns well with the spiritual traditions of the El Hierro islanders. In the island legends, the beloved portrait of the Virgin Mary, Virgen de los Reyes, came to El Hierro with the wind. In 1546, sailors drifting for days in calm water off the coast of El Hierro went ashore and gave the islanders an image of the Virgin Mary that they had been carrying for delivery to the New World. At that moment, the winds picked up and the sailors were finally able to sail away to the New World.

The festival La Bajada de la Virgen de los Reyes, bringing the Virgen down from the sanctuary at Dehesa is El Hierro's most important cultural and religious event.1

Years later, the island suffered a severe drought. Islanders went up to pray to the Virgin at the windswept sanctuary of La Dehesa de Sabinosa, where her image was kept. The islanders decided to walk her image down in procession to the drought-stricken lowlands. When the Virgin arrived, a miracle happened and torrential rains began to fall. The Virgin was thereafter known as the “holder of the waters”. To this day, La Bajada de la Virgen de los Reyes, or the “bringing down” of Our Lady of the Kings, remains El Hierro’s most important cultural and religious event.

The energies of wind and water are at the center of El Hierro’s physical and spiritual life. So too are the relationships the island has with its neighbors. El Hierro’s survival depends on collaboration with its sister Canary Islands and Spain. That is why the Spanish government’s recent decision to permit exploratory oil drilling in the waters off the Canary Islands came as a shock.

1

In August 2014, the Spanish Minister of Industry gave the multinational oil company Repsol permission to drill three exploratory deep-water perforations in the ocean seabed near the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands is one of the largest marine areas in Europe and is among the most spectacular areas on Earth for marine biodiversity.

Closer Look

Go to the Save Canarias Facebook page and learn what you can do for the people of El Hierro.

An oil spill would cause an environment disaster of unimaginable proportions. Such a disaster would affect not only the Islands’ marine biodiversity, but also its source for drinking water and its tourism and commercial fishing industries. Even without a spill, the drilling noise makes life impossible for the water’s many species of whales and dolphins who depend on sound to communicate, navigate, feed, and, breed.

The interesting story of El Hierro Island opens up questions about the science of energy, the challenge of ethically acquiring and using energy, the link between energy and human spirituality, and actions that need to be taken to wisely satisfy our energy needs. The rest of this chapter is built around these questions.

  • What is energy and what are its main sources? What bearing do the laws of thermodynamics have on our understanding of energy? Which forms of energy are renewable and which are non-renewable?
  • There is intense public debate today around methods of acquiring, using, and distributing energy. What contribution do the moral principles, goals, and virtues of Healing Earth make to this debate?
  • What examples in the world’s religions show a link between spiritual energy and the energies of nature? What are some of the ‘inner’ energies that human beings experience as spiritually powerful in their lives? How are these energies related to the energies of the natural world? Do you sense any relationship between your inner human energy and the energy of the natural world?
  • What actions are being taken in the world today that are hopeful signs of a transition to renewable energy? Are there actions being taken in your community to conserve energy and switch to renewable sources?