Fragile Galapagos

 By RP Siegel

The Galapagos Islands, isolated 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador, are world-renowned for their biodiversity and as the outdoor laboratory where Charles Darwin development his theory of evolution. With no native sources of energy, the islands have traditionally relied on diesel fuel, brought in by tankers, to power electric generators. In January, 2001, the tanker Jessica hit a reef and spilled over half a million liters of fuel, threatening the fragile ecosystem. While catastrophic consequences were avoided, an international outcry led to a movement to move to the Galapagos to cleaner energy sources. Today a combination of wind and solar provide 30% of the islands power and the LEED-certified Baltra airport is the world’s only airport that runs entirely on renewable power. But with growing tourism bringing a new hospital and hotel, more power will soon be needed. So the project’s operators have announced an expansion of the renewable portfolio that when completed with meet 70% of the rising demand for energy…

The Galapagos archipelago is an ecological treasure, known for its fantastic biodiversity, as well as being the location where Charles Darwin conducted extensive research that eventually led to his theory of evolution. Today, the islands attract thousands of tourists, but its ecosystem requires protection from the predations of both man and nature. Organizations like the Galapagos Conservancy, closely monitor the health of the various species, acting as a watchdog against illegal fishing and confiscation of stolen natural specimens, which range from sea cucumbers to iguanas. Other conservation efforts include rehabilitation of animals and a variety of bird species.

Located in the Pacific, roughly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) west of Ecuador, the islands have been hit particularly hard from El Niño events, including highly destructive rain levels, and ocean temperatures so high (30˚C/86˚F) that the red and green algae that serve as food for iguanas (and many other creatures) are being killed off in massive numbers.

But man-made events have also impacted the islands’ fragile ecosystem. Until recently, all the electricity for the island was produced by diesel generators, powered by imported diesel fuel brought in on tanker ships. In January 2001, the tanker ship Jessica ran aground, spilling some 570,000 liters (150,5778 gallons) of diesel fuel that could have potentially struck a major blow against biodiversity as well the tourist economy of the islands. Fortunately, wind and ocean currents were favorable, pushing the spill out to sea and averting a potential disaster.

But it was a close call, and one that prompted action. Starting back in 2007, an international partnership of electric utility companies known as Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership (GSEP), a not-for-profit association of 11 of the world’s foremost electric utilities, took on a $10-million project to reduce the islands’ reliance on the diesel generators. They installed three 51-meter (167-feet) tall, 800 kW wind turbines and two small solar arrays which combined to produce 30 percent of the power used on San Cristóbal, the archipelago’s second-largest island in size and population. An independent company called Eólica San Cristóbal S.A., or EOLICSA, was created to own and manage the project.

The result of those installations was the displacement of 8.7 million liters (2.3 million gallons) of diesel fuel, which avoided 21,000 metric tons (23,148 short tons) of CO2 emissions. Theproject received awards from Power Engineering Magazine, World Energy Forum and Energy Globe.

Great care was taken in the construction of the project to protect fragile and endangered bird populations, particularly the Galapagos Petrel. It started with the location of the turbines, which were on a hill far from petrel nesting sites, and away from areas where the endangered Galapagos Miconia plant grows. The turbines were designed to operate at very low wind speed; to further protect the birds, the first 3 km of cable was was buried underground. Without this approach, the wires would have crossed an area that the birds travel through between their nesting area and fishing grounds. To date, there is no record of any birds being injured.

Meanwhile the population and the level of tourism have both continued to grow. In the period from 1990 to 2013, the number of visitors has increased fivefold, from 40,000 to 200,000. The current tourism annual growth rate is 8 percent. Meanwhile, the islands’ year-round population has increased from 10,000 to 30,000.

Galapagos Ecological Airport in Baltra

The Galapagos recently saw the construction of a new airport, the Seymour Ecological Airport, constructed with an intense focus on sustainability. The facility, which runs entirely on renewable energy (with the exception of one air-conditioned equipment room), received a LEED Gold rating from the US Green Building Council, the first of its kind for an entire airport.

The next step is to further ramp up renewable production. A newly issued report from the GSEP shows that despite the growth in demand, an expansion that could provide for 70 percent of all electricity is economically feasible. This would include an additional 1.7 MW of wind, 4.5 MW of solar and 6.5 MWh of battery storage.

However, the recent drop in oil prices hurts the prospect in two ways. First, the cost of diesel has fallen, making it harder to justify an alternative. Second, since Ecuador is an oil-producing country, its revenues have fallen, making it harder to support such an ambitious new project.

Still, Marco Salao Bravo, Executive President of ELECGALÁPAGOS S.A., says that his “team shall continue working in the implementation of current and future renewable energy projects to convert the Galapagos into a zero fossil fuels territory.”


SEE MORE: Pact of Islands by Andrew Burger


about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.