A project to wean the Galapagos Islands off fossil fuels, which includes three giant wind turbines on one of the World Heritage site islands, was officially launched today.
The initiative to switch to 100% renewables by 2015 has been led by the $10.8m (€7.3m) San Cristobal Wind Project – a collaboration between the UN, electricity companies, the Ecuador government and locals.
The 800kw, 58-metre diameter turbines between them generate around 50% of San Cristobal’s energy needs over the year, halving the reliance of the island’s 6,000 inhabitants on diesel generators.
And while the construction of wind turbines often raise fears among conservationists of damage to wildlife and landscapes, the project’s managers insist they undertook a rigorous environmental study to protect the flora and fauna of the island.
Jim Tolan, the project director for the commercial trust which owns the wind farm, said extensive studies were done on the potential effects on the critically endangered Galapagos petrel.
“This was an environmental project, the last thing we wanted to do was build a project that had a negative impact,” he said.
The petrel, which is endemic to the Galapagos, nests in dense vegetation on several of the islands where its eggs and chicks are preyed on by invasive species such as rats.
The site for the wind turbines was moved twice, with an early option ruled out because of the presence of endangered birds and plants.
The hill where they chose to site the turbines, in San Cristobal’s highlands, was one the birds did not nest on.
Studies of their flight patterns, which occur over land at night and required night vision visors to spot, showed just a handful birds flew over it, mostly at low heights, Mr Tolan said.
He said extensive monitoring of the site since the construction of the machinery had recorded no deaths of birds or bats from the blades.
And he said the scheme had the backing of the local people.
“The local community are very excited about it. It shows their concern for the environment and tourism is a big part of the economy and it’s good for tourism.
“They’re very proud of it being the first place in Ecuador which has a wind project.”
The move towards renewables on the islands which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was the result of an ecological near-miss in which the tanker Jessica struck a reef in 2001 and began breaking up – threatening the vast array of species with thousands of gallons of oil.
Winds and currents narrowly averted an environmental catastrophe, but plans were launched to reduce the dependence on diesel to lessen the risk of fuel spills, as well as cut air pollution and protect biodiversity.
The wind turbines, funded by nine of the world’s largest electricity companies known as the e8, are part of a programme supported by the Ecuador government and the UN Development Programme to move the Galapagos Islands’ five inhabited islands to wind and solar power.
The scheme is being launched officially today by Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the islands’ discovery.