Wind Power Turbines Spin In the Galapagos Islands

Galapagos-wind-power-turbines.JPG

Every year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to the Galápagos Islands to experience its exquisite natural attractions. Last September, I traveled to San Cristóbal, the easternmost island in the archipelago, to see something entirely made by humans.

I was there to watch a team of engineers building three 800-kilowatt state-of-the-art wind power turbines. Now the turbines are ready. Last Tuesday, a dedication ceremony took place on the hills of San Cristóbal to mark the end of the construction and testing phase and celebrate the beginning of the wind system's commercial operation.

But why do the Galápagos need wind power anyway?

Contrary to what most people imagine, the Galápagos Islands, a rarefied ­ecosystem where Charles Darwin drew inspiration for his theory of evolution, is not a deserted paradise whose sole inhabitants are giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and other native species. We, humans, are a big presence on the islands.

In addition to the 120,000 tourists that visit every year, the Galápagos are also home to more than 20,000 people. And both numbers continue to grow rapidly. One result of all this human activity is a higher demand for electricity. To produce electric power, the islands have relied on diesel generators. The fuel for the generators, and also for cruise ships and auto­mobiles, arrives by oil tanker from mainland Ecuador.

But bringing oil to paradise is not an ideal situation. In 2001, the Ecuadorian tanker Jessica took a wrong turn near San Cristóbalâ''s harbor, rammed into a reef, and ran aground, leaking more than 500,000 liters of diesel and bunker fuel. The incident served as a wake-up call.

Before long, the Ecuadorian government teamed up with the United Nations Development Programme and the e8â''a consortium of electricity companies from the G8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States) that supports energy projects in the developing worldâ''to launch the US $10.8 million San Cristóbal Wind Project.

The dedication last week was the culmination of more than six years of intense work involving a rather diverse group of people. In fact, the group gathered for the ceremony included Ecuadorian ministers and politicians, United Nations officials, American engineers, French and German executives, the Russian ambassador to Ecuador, and many locals who participated in the project.

(Fortunately for those traveling from abroad, the San Cristóbal airport had recently reopened after months closed for construction. When I visited I had to take a three-and-a-half-hour stomach-churning boat ride from nearby Santa Cruz to get to the island, and more than once I though of jumping into the cold Pacific waters.)

Attending the ceremony last week, Jim Tolan, the project manager, reports that the weather was just perfect. Sunny, blue sky, no clouds. As the crowd of 150 people convened near the turbines, with cocktails and ceviche floating around, the wind wasn't blowing strongly, but it was enough to turn the blades for all to see. (Watch a video of the turbines above.) "Everyone, especially the local people, were incredibly happy," he says.

Tolan, who lives in Portland, Maine, and traveled to the Galápagos more than a dozen times, believes this was his last trip for now. "I said my goodbyes," he says. "Unless, well, we start another project there."

UPDATE: Paul Loeffelman, director of environmental public policy at American Electric Power, the e8 member company that led the San Cristóbal project, sends us this brief report on the dedication ceremony:

The March 18 Galapagos Wind Project Dedication Ceremony was a celebration of the hard work by many persons to bring the first commercial scale wind park in Ecuador on line with all of its environmental benefits. The e8 project team needed to overcome great challenges and did so with the help of the UNDP, UNF and many other institutions and organizations in Ecuador. We were humbled by the warmth and appreciation that we were shown by the local community, true partners that were willing to embrace new technology to improve their quality of life and environment.

Approximately 300 residents, contractors, local power company staff and agency representatives were at the wind park, toured the wind-diesel control room with its solar panels, and attended the formal convention center speeches. We recognized a few with certificates at the convention center. The e8 received a plaque and sculpture from the Mayor and Prefect as well. In addition, the Ecuadorian Post Office issued a stamp on March 18 in honor of the project. The National Park officially opened its new renewable energy exhibit in the Interpretation Center with permanent photos of the e8 wind turbine, control room computer screen and solar panels.

Photo and video by Diego Añazco

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Advertisement