Island in the wind

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Nothing, it seems, was going to stop the development of a wind farm on the island of La Desirade in the French Caribbean. Cyclones, tropical gales, iguanas, curious goats and fears that the turbines would attract sharks were just some of the hurdles which the project had to clear before it went on line in 1993. But once up and running it proved such a success that an expansion of the whole plant has recently been completed.

Originally it was made up of 12 Vergnet 12 kW machines from France (erected after a study of shark behaviour convinced islanders their fears were groundless) which supplied between 35% and 75% of electricity needs. The expansion has increased the rated power of each turbine to 25 kW and added eight wind converters, bringing total installed capacity to 500 kW, up from 144 kW. The plant now meets nearly all the electricity demand of La Desirade. Excess power is sent to Guadeloupe via an undersea cable which also tops up supply when necessary. Lack of a deep water harbour for importing oil made a cable the only choice for electricity until now.

Most of the small island consists of a barren plateau covered by bushes and cactus and its 1600 residents -- with ten goats apiece -- live simple lives. Renewable energy connects well with their agricultural and fishing traditions, according to La Desirade's mayor, Emile Robin. "At the start people had doubts about the reliability of the turbines, but now we call them our gazelles," he says. The machines are winched flat to survive the region's frequent cyclones.

"The whole scheme is perfectly adapted to this small network," says Marc Frager of the Guadeloupe office of Ademe, the French environment and energy agency. Frager helped persuade the archipelago to head for an ambitious goal of 20% energy independence. Most power comes from five new small hydro plants and from municipal waste and sugar cane burning. Guadeloupe also has a 4.8 MW geothermal plant, now being revamped. Wind will account for 3% of total power, mainly from a 5.6 MW plant to be built on Grand Terre, according to the plan. Another island, Marie-Galante, is to get Vergnet turbines like those on La Desirade. Job creation through renewable energy development amounts to some 120 jobs, a powerful argument for investment in a region where unemployment is 30%.

Financing of the La Desirade expansion is mainly from regional energy efficiency funds and private investors -- who benefit from full tax exemption for certain investments in overseas Departements of France. "This plant is now our showcase for all the Caribbean, says Marc Vergnet. "Other islands here have even less infrastructure or cranes and will benefit from the anti-cyclone principle of our design."

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