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World's first island to run 100% on clean energy

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Life without fossil fuels isn't just a pipe dream for the people of El Hierro. Pipes, however, are involved in this experiment for energy independence in the Canary Islands.

Life without fossil fuel power isn't just a pipe dream for the people of El Hierro. By year's end, the westernmost Canary Island aims to generate all of its electricity from its renewable resources. The electric cars, the planners say, will come later.

UNESCO designated El Hierro as a Biosphere Reserve in 2000. Apparently, the island wanted to be even greener. Far flung into the Atlantic Ocean, El Hierro wants to bid adiós to the oil tankers that enable its 44,000-barrel a year habit, and the 18,200 tons of carbon dioxide that come with burning it. Instead, the island will use what it has locally—a lot of wind, a lot of sun, a lot of water, and an old volcano.

The project, first proposed in 1986, combines wind energy and hydroelectricity and adds a dash of solar power. Power from five turbines atop a ridge on the island's northeastern coast will pump water into the crater of a dormant volcano. When the wind doesn't blow, they will release the water through four hydroelectric turbines into a basin created closer to the coast. When the winds pick up, the water will again travel up 2,300 feet to start anew. The upper basin can hold 556,000 cubic meters of water. Swiss engineering company ABB will be integrating the power generated by the $87 million project into the island's grid.

Called pumped hydro storage, the technology got a recommendation from Energy Secretary Steven Chu last October. Chu suggested building more such facilities in the U.S., where pump hydro was initially used to store nuclear power during off-peak hours.

Together, the 11.5-megawatt wind farm and 11.3-megawatt hydroelectric plant will provide 80 percent of the power for the island's 3 desalination plants and 11,000 residents. The energy needs of the 60,000 or so tourists who drop by each year will also be met. Photovoltaic solar panels and solar thermal collectors are expected to take care of the remaining 20 percent.

While small, the island of just 104 square miles could make big ripples in the world of renewable energy. The Greek island of Ikaria, which is just a smidge smaller, is reportedly building a wind and water power project modeled after El Hierro's.

Peter Sweatman of the Madrid-based consulting firm Climate Strategy, tells the New York Times:

El Hierro is an emblematic project. It’s really a role model for other islands, and for non-islands it’s a test case to fully develop the potential for pump storage.

El Hierro is saying that renewable energy will be cheaper in the long run than fossil fuels, and the answer depends on future expected price of oil...But if it’s $100 a barrel, renewable energy with pump storage would be cheaper over 30 years.

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Images: Flickr_barraquito and Wikipedia Commons

Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure