Our tour guide was unenthusiastic about the progress Tenerife was making toward a renewable energy transition. “We’re the kind of place that waits for the countries around us to make changes,” he admitted. “Then we might consider it.”
Our repositioning cruise stopped in the Canary Islands — a place I had never imagined that I would visit. The towering Teide volcano influenced the mountainous topography and had seismic activity as recently as 2005. The roads dipped down to the crashing surf, agricultural steps spilled over with banana plants, and homes perched on the sides of cliffs.
Like others in the Canary Islands, Tenerife is not connected to the mainland electricity grid. That means the current generation system is mainly based on traditional fossil fuel imports for electricity generation. This leads to an increase in the cost of electricity and CO2 emissions. Tenerife’s power systems face environmental, economic, and social sustainability challenges. Clearly, price and climate pollution justice can be sought on Tenerife by seeking out more renewable energy sources.
In many ways, Tenerife signifies the global efforts toward energy system transformation and renewable energy’s technical feasibility and economic viability. How can this island in an archipelago transform from its problematic fossil fuel–based system into a renewable energy oasis?
The largest of the Canary Islands, located in the Atlantic Ocean opposite the northwestern coast of Africa, Tenerife is well poised to integrate renewables. Tenerife has great potential for the implementation of sustainable energy systems due to the availability of natural resources and climate impacts. The weather in Tenerife is the result of a combination of cold ocean currents, warmth from the nearby Tropic of Cancer, the trade winds, and the island’s orography.
Like everywhere in the world, Tenerife must work to stabilize temperatures at the cooler end of 2 degrees Celsius warming range, which will require a near total transformation of energy, transportation, agriculture, housing, industry, and infrastructure. The use of local energy sources, such as wind, solar, and tidal energy can mitigate fossil fuel consumption and reduce the island’s vulnerability.
Planning for the transition to renewables has started. An important investment plan has been carried out by the Spanish grid operator Red Electrica de Espana to ensure energy supply, to improve the system security and reliability, and to optimize the integration of renewable energies.
Also, at the beginning of this year, the Ministry for the Energy Transition and the Demographic Challenge (MITECO) of the Canary Islands has announced a call for proposals for innovative technologies or business models to accelerate the autonomous community’s energy transition. To this end, funding of €25 million was allocated to support the upcoming projects. These include innovative technologies in energy storage, green hydrogen, renewable marine energies, and geothermal energy, among others.
Energy storage: Strong winds can influence continuity of Tenerife wind power, as can high dust pollution that drifts from the African coast, combined with the alternate timing of low wind speed. These increase the need for energy storage capacities. Depending on the geographical situation on different parts of Tenerife, different energy storage options must be considered. Most studies highlight a common solution of combining at least two renewable power technology sources with energy storage in the form of batteries or pumped hydro storage.
Geothermal: At a 2021 event organized by the Illustrious Official College of Geologists, technical experts expressed findings that the Canary Islands were “the ideal territory to develop geothermal energy in Spain.” The islands of La Palma and Tenerife, in particular, were cited as interesting regions for geothermal development.
Offshore wind power: Spanish companies Capital Energy and BlueFloat Energy are joining forces in Tenerife to develop the 50 MW Granadilla offshore wind farm, the first in Spanish port waters. The project requires an investment of more than €120 million with 5–10 MW turbines placed on gravity-based foundations made of concrete. The bulk of the electricity generated will be used for self-consumption by the port facilities and its concessionaires. The next step will be to start the characterization of the offshore wind farm through environmental campaigns and the related environmental impact assessment. Of course, the tall reach of wind turbines will impact the natural and landscape heritage of the island, especially in the affluent southeast sector.
Water: In the Canary Islands, seawater desalination has a long history and is an important vector of the freshwater supply. These islands provide an excellent example of how a region with water shortage can alleviate its local water scarcity problem. The Canary Islands Institute of Technology (ITC) has demonstrated that reverse osmosis desalination technologies can be powered by renewable energy. Water desalination can be performed in an economically feasible way, with electrical energy provided by the sun and wind.
Blended Renewables Make a Good Match in Tenerife
Wind and solar: Connecting small islands to mainland grids or the grid of neighboring islands requires the application of submarine power cables to pass through the sea. In July, Tenerife’s total installed capacity of wind and solar exceeded 22%, which is about 320 MW. The plans are to integrate even more renewables and potentially interconnect the islands via high-voltage direct submarine cables.
Hydropower and wind: One study concludes that a 75.9% renewable energy system could be attained in the Canary Islands with technologies that can be implemented at present. The optimal configuration would blend pumped storage hydropower plants coupled with wind turbines and the partial decommissioning of the existing power generation systems. The study recognizes that it is important to address grid voltage fluctuation issues due to the presence of intermittent energy sources.
Energy conservation in the Canary Islands: The Red Cross and Gorona del Viento — a Canary Island hydroelectric plant — is teaching islanders about energy conservation. In the program, trainers lead a group of 10 people how to reduce the carbon footprint of individual homes through energy saving and efficiency and how to identify electrical risks. After 3 months in the classroom, the learners become emissaries, visiting older or isolated residents to help make their homes more eco-friendly. As reported by the Christian Science Monitor, the project is part of a wider vision to make the island a global leader in renewable energy. The hydroelectric plant saves over 7,000 tons of diesel fuel and avoids more than 24,000 tons of CO2 emissions each year — with greater savings planned when it incorporates solar energy into the plant by 2050.
From least to most robust renewable energy: Even the least expensive renewable energy system penetration in each Canary Island exceeds 60%, compared to 18.8% and 15.5% today. This implies a potential 58% reduction in CO2 emission intensity. Additional renewable energy integration decreases the cost of electricity by about 23.0%.
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