January 2020 was the warmest January in 141 years. Yet on the question of climate change, there is hope. The United States can look to one small island in the Atlantic for a model of sustainable, renewable energy. In August 2019, the tiny island of El Hierro produced enough renewable energy to power its 10,000 residents for 25 consecutive days. The island has harnessed its natural resources of wind and water to become self-sustaining.
El Hierro has long faced the problem of power. Until 2014, it imported expensive, inefficient fossil fuels from mainland Europe – about 6,600 tons of diesel fuel by boat each year. Now its generation of power from wind and water can serve as a model for the Green New Deal, a proposed congressional resolution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The island has successfully integrated community engagement, localized energy sourcing, and long-term planning to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Off the coast of northern Africa, El Hierro is the smallest and most remote of the Canary Islands. It juts sharply out of the ocean, creating a mountainous, windy island perfect for wind turbines. Until the 1970s, only three towns on the island had electricity, and only from dusk until midnight. Before renewable energy, inclement weather could cause the island to lose power for days at a time. Imported energy was expensive and unsustainable. In the early 1990s, the local government looked to the European Union (EU) for creative solutions.
The EU answered El Hierro’s call. It loaned over €35 million to support the construction of a renewable energy plant that uses both wind and hydroelectric power. On most days, the energy that the wind turbines produce is enough to power the entire island. If the wind is not sufficient, the island uses hydroelectric power. Two reservoirs form a closed circuit, one higher in elevation than the other. The already-harvested wind energy pumps water up the mountain, and turbines produce energy when the water flows down. Energy expenditure varies by day, but in August 2019, El Hierro made headlines worldwide by producing 97% of the energy necessary to fulfill the island’s needs.
While some residents expressed concerns about investing in renewables rather than tourism, there was never any major organized opposition to the project. In fact, El Hierro now markets itself as a destination for ecotourism. Other communities, including the larger Canary Islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife, are following its example.
During my year living and working on El Hierro, I visited the power plant and learned that only twelve people are employed there. The employees are all skilled laborers, with higher wages than other jobs on this small island. Unemployment has always been a struggle on El Hierro. Residents have to leave the island to attend college. Yet the sustainability efforts in the last few decades have not caused job losses, only gains.
El Hierro’s local government is proactive in preparing for the jobs of the future. Training programs on the island focus on clean energy, engineering, and repairing the current mechanisms for harnessing renewable energy. Schoolchildren have long units on recycling, respecting the environment, and using natural resources wisely. The government is also looking to scale back gas-powered vehicles and transition the entire island to electric vehicles by 2040. The local government is installing electric car charging points, which local artists and schoolchildren decorate, bringing the entire community into the project.
El Hierro’s sustainable energy plan has been successful because of long-term planning, the integration of education programs, and locally-based solutions. Now known as “the sustainable island,” El Hierro is attracting many eco-tourists. It has implemented bottom-up development and community engagement to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels. In planning for the Green New Deal, the United States should emulate this small island’s success by integrating professional training and educational programs about recycling and renewable energy careers into the public school system, investing in renewable energy sources appropriate for the natural environment of different states, and directly involve local communities through public awareness, community art and culture, and job creation for the future.
Sadie Williams is a current Master’s student at the Elliott School studying international development, sustainability, and youth issues. She was a Fulbright grantee to Spain from 2017-2019 where she taught English in public schools and studied renewable energy.
Special thanks to the author for providing the photos used in this story.