GELLERMAN: The Galapagos is a wind-swept archipelago, famous for inspiring Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Now even the wind there is evolving, thanks to a new generation of wind power technology. On the island of San Cristobal, you'll find a new breed of wind turbine that supplies half of the island's electricity. Spectrum Radio's Erico Guizzo traveled to the Galapagos and brought back our report.
[BOAT ENGINE HUMMING]
GUIZZO: San Cristóbal is part of a group of small islands in the Pacific that form one of the most exquisite places on earth: the Galapagos archipelago. Every year, more than one hundred thousand tourists come to the Galapagos to get close to its extraordinary fauna: to snorkel with hammerhead sharks, hang out with giant tortoises, or bask on the beach with sea lions.
[SEA LIONS BARKING ON THE BEACH]
GUIZZO: Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835. The unique creatures he found here captured his imagination and helped him realize that species evolve by means of natural selection. Nature loving visitors now flock to the islands in hopes of seeing what Darwin saw. But today the Galapagos, located about seven hundred miles off Ecuador, is a very different place. Tourism has increased rapidly, and so has the local population, which now is more than twenty thousand. There are also lots of hotels, shops, restaurants and vehicles.
[MOTORCYCLE ENGINE STARTS UP; KIDS TALKING]
GUIZZO: The tourism and population boom brought a higher demand for electricity. Until recently, the islands relied entirely on diesel generators. The fuel for the generators, and also for boats and vehicles, arrives by oil tanker from mainland Ecuador. Seven years ago, a tanker ran aground and spilled 150,000 gallons of fuel into San Cristóbal's harbor. Since then, the government of Ecuador intensified efforts to free the Galapagos from fossil fuels. The government teamed up with the United Nations Development Program and the e8, an international consortium of electricity companies, to launch the San Cristóbal Wind Project.
TOLAN: This project is called a high penetration wind-diesel hybrid system.
GUIZZO: Jim Tolan is an American engineer and one of the project managers. He says that the goal of the ten million dollar project is to supply half the island's electricity, on average, with a two point four megawatt wind farm.
San Cristobal's system is a wind-diesel hybrid because it combines wind power and diesel generation. Tolan says the diesel generators provide electricity in the months when there's little or no wind.
TOLAN: In the high wind periods, we might actually be putting eighty percent of the grid energy from wind; it's a very high percentage.
[TURBINE BLADES WHIRRING]
GUIZZO: The three wind turbines perch atop a hill on the highlands of San Cristóbal, ten miles from town. The steel towers stand as tall as fifteen storey buildings and hold three-bladed rotors. Through the dense fog, it's difficult to make out the blades, each about the length of a Jumbo 747 wing.
GUIZZO: Tolan leads me through a small door into turbine number one. We put on safety harnesses and hook them to a steel cable to climb a narrow ladder that stretches all the way to the top of the tower.
[HARNESSES CLANKING ON STEEL CABLE]
GUIZZO: Inside this giant white walled tube, with the fluorescent lights flickering and electronic equipment beeping, it's like being in a spaceship.
GUIZZO: At the top of the ladder, we squeeze through an opening to get inside the turbine's uppermost structure. A massive piece of steel and iron the size of a Volkswagen Beetle sits before us; it's the generator, the heart of the machine. Batteries are normally used in conventional wind-diesel hybrids, but here they are not used for storage. An advanced control system automatically reduces or increases the turbines' power output according to demand. Not only is this system less expensive than conventional hybrids, it's also designed to use as little diesel generation as possible.
The San Cristobal wind project presented many technical and logistical hurdles to Tolan and his team, including how to bring construction equipment and materials to this tiny island. But in the end, what proved more challenging were the environmental aspects of the project.
Eighty-five percent of the island consists of protected national park. Tolan's team located a site in a cattle grazing area outside the national park for the wind farm. Still, the team had to make sure the turbines wouldn't disturb the ecosystem, including the nesting grounds of an endangered seabird, the Galapagos petrel.
Eventually studies concluded that the turbines presented little threat to the petrel and that transmission lines should be buried to minimize obstructions to the birds' flight path. San Cristóbal residents soon were on board with the project, and are now proud to be the first place in the Galapagos, and all of Ecuador, to use wind power. Patricio Andrade heads Elecgalapagos, the publicly owned utility. He says the new system is a big step for the archipelago.
[ANDRADE SPEAKING SPANISH]
TRANSLATION VOICE OVER: Many years ago, we had to use oil lamps here, in the rural areas for example. Now we will have a hybrid wind diesel system! Twenty, thirty years ago, at least for me, this was not something I would even dream of!
[FOOTSTEPS ON GRAVELLY TRAIL; BIRDSONG]
GUIZZO: After seeing blue footed boobies, brown pelicans, marine iguanas and the famed giant tortoises, you can't help feeling a bit like Darwin when you walk around the Galapagos. In his journal, later published as the Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin wrote, "The archipelago is a little world within itself... Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to the great fact, the mystery of mysteries, the first appearance of new beings on this earth." Darwin also noted that the uniqueness of the archipelago means it's extremely fragile. Now as we move forward into the twenty-first century, the survival of the Galapagos depends on finding a balance between the native species and foreign ones, including humans.
[SEA LIONS BARKING; BIRDSONG]
GUIZZO: For Living on Earth, I'm Erico Guizzo.
GELLERMAN: Our story about the Galapagos wind farm comes to us courtesy of Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of technology insiders.