Galapagos: fragile archipelago switches petrol for renewables

In 2007, the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership (GSEP) led a project to bring renewable energy to the San Cristóbal Island of the Galapagos archipelago, successfully replacing 30% of the island’s petroleum generated electricity with renewables. Now the GSEP has outlined a proposal to expand the project to provide a further 40% of clean energy to the island. The project’s leader, Paul Loeffelman, discusses the project, its expansion and the challenges presented by the ecologically sensitive environment.


Pic courtesy: pantxorama

In the Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator in both the northern and southern hemispheres, lies the UNESCO world heritage site, the Galapagos Islands – one of the richest and most diverse marine eco-systems in the world.

The Galapagos archipelago is made up of 19 islands and is visited by thousands of tourists from around the world every year, who fly from mainland Ecuador to the Galapago to experience some of the most easily accessible marine wildlife in the world, including penguins, sea turtles, sea lions and the only marine iguana in the world.

Up until 2007, the islands’ inhabitants relied solely on petroleum to meet the islands’ increasing needs for energy. Not only is petroleum a key source of carbon dioxide pollution, but transporting petroleum carries the risk of spills.

In 2001 a tanker ran aground at Bahia Naufragio on the coast of San Cristobal, the archipelago’s second biggest island, spilling 75,000 gallons of fuel oil and 70,000 gallons of diesel into the surrounding waters. A major disaster was narrowly averted due to meteorological conditions and the relatively quick action undertaken to control the spill, but evidence of severe effects on the marine iguana population on Santa Fe island were reported one year later.

Responding to calls to reduce the risk of petroleum spills and to provide clean energy to the Galapagos, the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership (GSEP), a not-for-profit organisation whose members are the world’s leading electricity companies, in con-junction with the Ecuadorian Government and other partners, installed three 51m wind turbines and two sets of solar panels on San Cristóbal. 

Environmental challenges

Since they went into operation in October 2007, on average 30% of the electricity consumed on the island has been provided by renewables, displacing 8.7million litres of diesel fuel and avoiding 21,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, according to GSEP.

"Since 2007, on average 30% of the electricity consumed on the island has been provided by renewables."

Now the partnership has outlined the potential to increase this positive impact by providing a further 40% of the islands’ electricity from renewables, eventually aiming to increase it to 100%.

Before investments can be made, GSEP is currently evaluating data from its feasibility study on how to further increase the share of renewables in San Cristóbal’s power supply. “The availability of renewable resources, the need for continuous reliability, and the affordability of the electricity produced need to be balanced and taken into account when considering any future plans or projects,” says Paul Loeffelman, director of corporate US external affairs and head of corporate international affairs at American Electric Power.

However, Loeffelman says, the GSEP has “a high degree of confidence in the results” but challenges remain in expanding renewables in such a highly sensitive ecological environment.

When scoping for the first project, three experts on bird-wind turbine interactions had to be consulted to review two years of flight pattern tracking data for the endangered petrel to suggest mitigating measures that could be taken in the project design, construction, and operation phases.

The recommendations resulted in the three current wind turbines being located on a hill to the left of the flight pattern of adult petrels, meaning that their location does not block the petrels’ usual flight. Petrels fly relatively low to the ground to the ocean and bring back fish for their young, who remain in nests in the ground.

“Even if any petrels were to fly towards the wind turbines, they would fly under the wind turbine blades unharmed,” says Loeffelman.

The transmission line from the wind turbines towards the bottom of the hill was buried to eliminate collision risks caused by the perpetual low cloud cover and the inability of the petrels to see the line.

In fact, monitoring data from the National Park Service shows a substantial increase in petrel hatching and survival rates and no injuries or mortalities of adult petrels.

Working together

Loeffelman says the approaches taken for San Cristobal should be replicable on other islands and in fact have already been replicated on nearby Baltra and Santa Cruz.

“But the details would need to be analysed through island-specific feasibility studies,” he says. “For example, the wind resources on the other islands may not be the same as those on San Cristóbal.”

"The details would need to be analysed through island-specific feasibility studies."

All projects by the GSEP are undertaken with a “learn by doing together” public-private partnership goal.

GSEP members produce and deliver about 33% of the electricity used in the world, mostly through carbon-free technologies.“The projects are effective as the local, regional and national parties work with us to design, engineer, construct, operate and maintain the projects so they reliably produce power and are environmentally and financially sustainable,” says Loeffelman.

GSEP worked collaboratively with the local utility company, Galapagos Electricity Utility, financial and environmental regulatory agencies and national and United Nations ministries to develop supportive public policies and tariffs. This collaborative working approach also made it easier to replicate the project on Baltra and Santa Cruz.

“A small example of institutionalising the GSEP project experience was the training program we conducted for the local utility staff to clean the turbine tower and blades,” says Loeffelman.

“When the towers were first installed, mountain climbers from the Ecuadorian mainland were hired to climb and clean the equipment because no one on San Cristóbal possessed the skills. The staff were then trained to safely take over the cleaning tasks,” he adds.

100% renewable future

“There are safe, affordable ways to increase renewables on the Galapagos to meet a majority of the population’s energy need,” says Loeffelman.

In order to achieve around 100% of electricity generation from renewables, with diesel generators only being used as a back-up San Cristóbal, Loeffelman says there will need to be full computerisation of the diesel generators to ensure that electricity is only generated from diesel when there is insufficient wind, plus installation of more solar power, additional wind power, solar photovoltaic capacity and battery storage. 

But Loeffelman believes that not only that the Galapagos project can be expanded but that much can be learned from it and the private-public partnership model that helped achieve it.

“The project is an outstanding example of teamwork that yields effective solutions to great challenges,” says Loeffelman.

“As nations of the world ratify and implement the Paris Agreement [an agreement within the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ], they will find great value in studying and following the disciplined, comprehensive approach the partners took and GSEP documented in this project’s development, construction, operation and maintenance phases.”