The island of El Hierro (Spain), a model of sustainable tourism

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has a very clear vision of the multidimensional nature of the issue, and considers tourism to be sustainable when we are capable of administering resources so that medium and long-term  territorial needs are met in environmental, aesthetic, economic and social terms. In addition, it is essential to preserve the cultural integrity of the zone and to protect the local area and its biodiversity. A tourism model is sustainable if the processes to be used not only meet the current needs of both the tourists and the community, but also take their future needs into account.


El Hierro 1

The smallest and least known of Spain’s Canary Islands, El Hierro, is aiming to become a model of sustainable tourism fully energy self-sufficient through combined water and wind power. The island is cited as a pioneering project by IRENA, the international organisation for renewable energy, and other experts such as Alain Gioda, a climate historian at France IRD science research institute.

“The true novelty of El Hierro is that technicians have managed, without being connected to any national network, to guarantee a stable production of electricity, that comes 100 percent from renewable energy, overcoming the intermittent nature of the wind,” he said.

El Hierro’s wind power plant has sparked interest from other islands seeking to follow its example.

What is the technology behind this project?

Between 70% and 80% of the island’s electricity demand will be met by a new hybrid hydro-wind generation system. Five windmills, with a combined installed capacity of 11.5 megawatts, will supply electricity to three desalination plants and the island’s population of close to 12,000 residents. Meanwhile, surplus power will be used to pump water more than 700 meters up into the crater of a sealed-off, long-extinct volcano. When the wind stops blowing or electricity demand is high, water from the 500,000 cubic metre reservoir will be released into turbines to create up to 11.3 megawatts of hydro-electric power. The water will then be collected in an artificial lower reservoir before being pumped up again to the higher basin.

El Hierro wants to extend its environmental credentials even further by ensuring that by 2020 all of its 6,000 vehicles are run on electricity thanks to an agreement with the Renault-Nissan alliance.

How about the costs of the project?

The wind power plant cost 80 million euros (US$110 million) to build. The island authorities own 60% of the plant, with 30% held by Spanish energy company Endesa – a subsidiary of Italian group Enel – and 10% by a local technology institute. In addition, solar panels will be installed to provide buildings with heating. The new hybrid system is expected to dramatically reduce the island’s oil use by around 40,000 barrels a year. As oil has to be brought to the island by ship, this will translate into annual savings of 1.8 million euros. It is calculated that the project will lead to a reduction of 18,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year and will generate around 4 million euros annually from the selling of electricity to islanders.

El Hierro, designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve with 60 percent of its territory of 278 square kilometres protected to preserve its natural diversity, also hopes its green energy drive will draw visitors interested in nature and science.

The example of El Hierro project shows that the sustainable tourism is all about re-focusing and adapting and that a balance can be found between limits and usage. Economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development must include the interests of all stakeholders including indigenous people, local communities, visitors, industry and government.

Tourism will never be completely sustainable as every industry has impacts, but it can work towards becoming more sustainable, which represents a major step towards sustainable development.

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