Galapagos less reliant on diesel -- Island evolution

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The wildlife-rich Galapagos island chain in the Pacific Ocean is now harnessing commercial-scale wind energy as part of a wind-diesel hybrid electricity plant. After a six year journey -- and strong concerns over its environmental impact -- three 800 kW turbines have been generating electricity for San Cristóbal Island since October. The machines were supplied by Gamesa subsidiary Made, a one-time wind turbine manufacturing division of Spanish utility Endesa. The 2.4 MW project is Ecuador's first wind plant, though located some 1000 kilometres from the mainland.

Electricity from the turbines is being bought by local utility Elecgalápagos, which serves the island's 6000 residential and business customers. The supply is expected to meet as much as 50% of San Cristóbal's needs over a year, according to Paul Loeffelman of American Electric Power (AEP), the project's lead contractor. Capacity factors have been high so far, reaching 80% in windy October. Loeffelman expects these to drop to 40% in February and March. The annual average windspeed is a relatively low 5.5 m/s.

Construction was undertaken by Ecuador's Santos CMI SA. The job involved extending La Predial pier to handle a 230 tonne crane and transporting the wind turbine components through the narrow streets of the town. The project received $10 million in grants from a wide range of domestic and international backers, including AEP, a US electricity provider, which pumped in over $5 million. Ecuador's government contributed $3.5 million and the UN added $1 million, to match private sector investment. The project is expected to secure official registration under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism, says Loeffelman.

The Galapagos Islands are renown for their abundance of rare birds and plant life and habitat protection was a crucial element of the project. "We didn't choose the primary site, instead we selected the place with the best balance of environmental risk and wind speeds," says Loeffelman, who adds that some of the windiest locations on hill tops had too many bird nests.

AEP carried out flight path studies of birds -- particularly on the island's rare Galapagos Petrels. The turbines were located so the petrels would fly from their ground-based nests under the 28.6-metre blades of each turbine. The Made units were selected for their low rotational speeds to lessen the risk for birds flying through the facility.

The wind plant will also lessen the island's reliance on imported diesel oil and the risk presented to the fragile island ecology by oil spills. In January 2001, a tanker carrying diesel and heavy "bunker" fuel ran aground as a result of human error and leaked at least 700,000 litres of diesel fuel into the Galapagos marine ecosystem.

Maintenance will be carried out jointly by AEP, Elecgalápagos and members of E8, a group made up of energy companies from G8 countries. They selected large German energy company RWE to manage the project. The joint venture is expected to remain active for at least six years to ensure the project runs smoothly, says Loeffelman.

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