The Beagle arrived in the Galapagos on September 15, 1835. On board was a young scientist, Charles Darwin, barely 26 years old. The observations he made in that archipelago would bear their most mature fruit years later in his masterpiece -The Origin of Species-, where Darwin raises the idea of biological evolution (adaptation and development of species) through natural selection, something that would revolutionize Western thought. The UN declared this archipelago a World Heritage Site in 1978.
Isabela is the largest island in the Ecuadorian archipelago of the Galapagos Islands. Thousands of tourists choose this destination for their holidays. The native flora and fauna of this singular corner of the Pacific make up one of the most exceptional places in the world. For this reason, UNESCO (United Nations for Education, Science and Culture Organization) declared the entire archipelago a World Natural Heritage Site in 1978 and a Biosphere Reserve in 1984. However, due to high levels of pollution, UNESCO asked Ecuador to find a more respectful and sustainable energy solution to the island’s fragile ecosystem.
UNESCO’s concern was no longer only due to the high levels of pollution, but also to the risks involved in transporting diesel oil by boat 600 miles away (the Galapagos are almost 1,000 kilometres from the coast of Ecuador). That risk has certainly materialized in two accidents in recent years: two large loads of fuel were spilled during the ship’s transfer to the power plant, threatening the island’s coastline and habitat. For that reason, the United Nations warned Ecuador that they had to find a cleaner electrical solution so that the Galapagos would not run the risk of losing its world heritage seal.
Photovoltaic, pinions and batteries
Aware of the risk posed by Unesco’s threat to Ecuador, the country, with the support of the German Government, invited several engineering companies to submit proposals for the construction of a reliable and environmentally clean system using renewable energies. The technical and logistical challenges of building and maintaining such a system on a remote island were the main obstacles. Well, the German company Siemens proposed “a hybrid electricity generation system that uses renewable fuels,” namely pinion oil, with which it has replaced the diesel hitherto used in Isabela.
The project proposed by the European company, 100% renewable, takes advantage of solar electricity produced by a photovoltaic installation and that produced by a generator that is fed with pinion oil: “with only 1.8 megawatts of maximum capacity, the hybrid system consists of three main components: a solar energy park of 952 kilowatts consisting of about 3.024 photovoltaic panels, a 1,625 kilowatt biodiesel generation system consisting of five 325 kilowatt generation groups and a battery storage system that can inject another 660 kilowatts instantaneously when needed.
According to Siemens, this project includes software that manages, among other functions, the energy flows to and from the batteries: “the system is fully operational since October, after an extensive testing period in pilot projects in both Ecuador and Germany. The German company emphasizes on the other hand that “the installation of this project of great importance, with its 600 tons of machinery and construction material, has been especially complicated, as there are no docks or piers on the island Isabela to which to moor ships.
According to data now made public by Siemens, “since its launch, the new hybrid power plant has provided significant environmental benefits: it prevented the burning of up to 33,000 liters of diesel that fed the old plant each month, thus saving the emission of 88 tons of CO2; moreover, the new plant has been operating at 99% of its capacity and is much less noisy than the previous one.
Siemens details the origin of the vegetable oil
With this new energy infrastructure, Galapagos replaces diesel with pine nut vegetable oil to generate electricity. The use of jatropha curcas, also known as piñón de tempate or jatrofa, as an oil source to produce biodiesel is especially innovative. This peculiar pine nut that grows in tropical areas of several South American countries, including Ecuador, is composed of 40% oil that can be processed into high quality biodiesel. The entire system,” Siems reports, “underwent a six-week test near Hamburg to demonstrate the plant’s successful operation, even before it was shipped to its final destination.
According to the company, “commissioning went smoothly and, thanks to extensive R&D work invested in developing the solution and a vast amount of very demanding testing, Siemens was able to guarantee the performance of the hybrid power plant. Remote monitoring of the plant from Austin, Texas, and Munich, Germany, provides local plant operators with Siemens’ expertise in power generation.
The raw material is obtained through the agro-industrial development of the pine nut, which is cultivated on the mainland coast of Ecuador, specifically in the province of Manabí, where a local cooperative produces the vegetable oil used on Isabela Island as a clean source of energy. In the event of a spill during transport by boat, the oil from this pinion could be dissolved relatively quickly and with little environmental impact.