Keeping oil from
troubled waters

Paul Loeffelman
describes a bid to bring renewable energy to the Galapagos archipelago and reduce the risk of oil spills devastating its unique wildlife

At ten o’clock on the night of 16 January 2001, the fuel tanker Jessica ran aground in the appropriately named Wreck Bay at San Cristobal, the easternmost island of the Galapagos. Over the next fortnight more than 800,000 litres of oil spilled from her hull and into the waters, raising fears of an ecological disaster in perhaps the world’s most celebrated Natural World Heritage Site. In the event, the islands where Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution were extraordinarily lucky – the slick threaded its way through them and escaped to sea without doing massive damage. Even so, some 60 per cent of the iguanas on a neighbouring island seem to have perished from the pollution.

Renewable sources
Minimizing the risk of a disastrous spill in this extraordinary archipelago, 965 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, is one of the main motives behind a remarkable project being prepared by the United Nations Foundation (UNF) in partnership with the E7 Fund – representing some of the world’s premier electricity companies – to support efforts by the Government of Ecuador, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). It aims to substitute renewable sources for fossil fuel in generating electricity on the islands and thus substantially reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide.

Electricity is generated by small diesel generators on the four inhabited islands of the Galapagos, as in many remote parts of the developing world: the fuel is brought by frequent deliveries in small tankers. But the sun and the wind could meet over 70 per cent of their needs, cutting the amount of diesel shipped to the islands in half. And the people will benefit from a clean, modern and reliable source of electricity.

The E7, created after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, consists of nine leading utilities from the G7 countries – American Electric Power, Eléctricité de France, ENEL (Italy), Hydro-Québec, Kansai Electric Power Company, (Japan), Ontario Power Generation, RWE (Germany), Scottish Power and Tokyo Electric Power Co. It promotes sustainable development by helping developing countries increase their capacity to generate and deliver electricity.

Internet access
Led by American Electric Power in this project, it is already introducing solar power to enable internet access on San Cristobal Island, educating the community on ways to use electricity more efficiently and – together with UNDP and UNF – is preparing to develop wind power there. It is working towards receiving an environmental licence for the development, with advice from wildlife experts and the archaeology authority, and plans to start producing electricity by the end of 2005. The E7 has created a community website,, to keep everyone informed, and observe data on energy production and use, and the weather. The UNF and GEF will invest in two other islands, Isabela and Santa Cruz.

Learning by doing
E7’s philosophy is ‘learning by doing’ and it is hoped the plan will be copied by other island states and across Ecuador, where 45 per cent of the rural people have no access to electricity services – and may not be connected to the grid for the next 15-20 years because of the high investment required for grid expansion. Success in the Galapagos should give private companies and investors the confidence to set up mini grids based on renewable energy technologies to serve these people, giving them a better quality of life, enabling them to earn more, and substantially reducing emissions of carbon dioxide

Paul Loeffelman is Director, Environmental Public Policy at American Electric Power.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Energy, 2001
Issue on Global Environment Facility, 2002
Issue on Energy, 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: