Every year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to the Galpagos Islands to experience its exquisite natural attractions. Last September, I traveled to San Cristbal, 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 Cristbal 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 Galpagos need wind power anyway?
Contrary to what most people imagine, the Galpagos 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 Galpagos 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 Cristbal''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 e8''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 world''to launch the US $10.8 million San Cristbal 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 Cristbal 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 Galpagos 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 Cristbal 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 Aazco