About El Hierro
The volcanic island of El Hierro is the smallest of the Canary Islands (at just 268 square kilometers, with a population of just 10,798 inhabitants). This island was colonized in the early 1400s by the same explorer (Jean de Bethencourt) who also founded the neighboring Canary Island of Fuerteventura on behalf of the Spanish crown. Christopher Columbus docked at El Hierro for 17 days during his second voyage to the Americas (1493), until sailing conditions were ideal to proceed. Because of its geographic isolation from mainland Spain, El Hierro was used by Spanish rulers to send politicians, military leaders and others into exile.
Although there’s little historically significant that happened on this island since the Spanish conquest, French and other explorers marked the island’s Punta de Orchilla cape (the island’s westernmost end) as “Zero Meridian” – since European explorers long considered El Hierro island the westernmost land of peoples of the “Known World” (or the “edge of the world”).
The French viewed El Hierro to be exactly 20 degrees west of the Paris meridian (1/18th of its relevant parallel of the globe). That would remain until 1884, when the International Meridian Conference (held in Washington DC) decided to make Greenwich, UK the prime meridian (that international shippers can use on their charts and maps). “Greenwich Mean Time” (GMT), or UT (Universal Time) – the measurement of time in different parts of the world, would be established on that standard. When shortwave radio came into being in the early 20th century (which enabled radio broadcasts into different time zones throughout the world), schedules of radio programs were set to GMT.
In recent times, most of the Canary Islands treat tourism as one of their main engines of economic growth. El Hierro, due to its size and isolation, receives about 20,000 tourists a year (mainly those from other Canary islands). In fact, El Hierro’s main connection to the outside world is its ferry and air links with Tenerife. Like Fuerteventura and La Gomera (in particular), eco-tourists are naturally attracted to El Hierro, due to its topography. El Hierro did generate some international attention when an underwater volcano erupted in October 2011 (just a short distance off of the coast of the fishing village of La Restinga).
These days, El Hierro is gaining international interest for another reason: its goal of making the entire island run solely on renewable energy (through the inauguration of a wind-hydroelectric plant at Gorona del Viento). According to the Spanish utility company Endesa, in the first half of 2018 the island’s power station generated 100% of the island’s electricity needs for a period of 1,450 hours, a percentage notably higher than that for 2017, which achieved this level for a period of 892 hours. In addition to this, during the first six months of the year, savings were made of 3,700 tons of diesel oil, and of approximately 12,100 tons of CO2 emissions.
The Gorona del Viento wind-hydro power plant now manages to produce all the energy that the island needs, with an annual average of 60% of energy from renewables, often hitting peaks of 100%. For that simple reason, scientists and climate change observers worldwide are likely to study El Hierro’s success with its renewable energy efforts, at a time when debates over climate change are demanding serious study over the widespread use of zero carbon emission sources of clean energy, such as solar and wind.