Spain is something of an energy island; its grid connections with neighboring France and North Africa are weak. Even more isolated are the Spanish Canary Islands, an archipelago of seven small island systems.
Nevertheless, the Canary Islands have devoted local resources to investigating the best ways to move wind power into the future. They hope to serve as an example for islands and rural communities around the world.
"In the Canary Islands, the grids are weaker than in Europe, and there are islands around the world with even weaker grids," says AEE director Alberto Cena. "The challenge is how to integrate wind with diesel engines or fuel engines. We still need to work a lot on that. The experience of the Canary Islands is going to be very useful in the future of wind power."
In fact, the islands were, along with Tarifa on Spain's southernmost border, the site of the country's first wind farms in the early 1990s. Development slowed, but the local parliament's 2006 decision to produce 25 percent of the region's electricityfrom renewable energy by 2015 spurred an increase in development.
The Canary Islands Institute of Technology (ITC), a regional government research center, has continued working to develop systems that look ahead to the island's future. "The Canary Islands are a real laboratory and can serve as the ideal platform for testing new energy technologies," says ITC director Gonzalo Piernavieja.
One recent project involves the island of El Hierro, which has a population of 10,500. The government recently announced a plan that would enable the island to derive 100 percent of its power from renewable sources. The key will be 10 megawatts of wind power connected to a pump system. When wind blows so fiercely that locals can't utilize all the energy, the extra power will be used to pump water up a nearby mountain to two reservoirs, one of which is a natural volcanic crater. When the wind drops, the water will fall and turn a turbine. This pumping system has been paired with other forms of electricity, but it's never been used with wind power before. In addition, the entire system will be connected to a desalination plant to provide potable water.
The dimensions of El Hierro make this small, windy, mountainous desert island the perfect laboratory for testing the new system. Installation will begin within the next year, but Piernavieja says it does offer challenges: "We have to dimension all the electrical protections and wirings, and we have to account for stability in frequency and voltage. This is not a trivial issue in this kind of renewable- energy electricity grid."
ITC is also working on a system to couple wind power with hydrogen production. A small 10-kilowatt wind-power generator connected to an electrolysis machine was inaugurated in October 2007, along with a larger 100-kilowatt system. "It's difficult— the components are not easy to manage— but we are learning," says Piernavieja. "Our main focus of research is coupling the wind energy and hydrogen production systems, because electrolyzers are not meant to work with intermittent power, and there's no book to read about integration or installation technology." There are only a handful of such integrated systems in the world.
Says Piernavieja, "We want the islands, particularly the Canary Islands, to be the first hydrogen economies, and the first regions where renewable-energy storage devices are implemented or tested— because islands are kind of showcase of what will happen in continental areas in the future. This is our vision."
And as the Canary Islands work to become a model for islands and rural areas internationally, so Spain— and Spanish companies— hope to show the world just what the wind might bring.