Green Or Gone

Off Of Tiny Island, Hydraulics Harness Ocean Energy

Using hydraulics to churn energy from its most obvious natural resource, Ushant is on its way toward an environmental overhaul, and other countries are taking note.

Ushant coastline
Ushant coastline
Pierre Le Hir

USHANT â€" Drizzle joined wind gusts to welcome us in the Iroise Sea this cold morning. Having left from Le Conquet, on the western tip of the French region of Brittany, our blue-and-white boat greedily eats up the waves, heavy with foam. The lighthouse of Kéréon, one of the five that keep watch over Ushant, towers in a gloomy sky once we pass the Molène archipelago.

We're two kilometers away from the coast, in the Fromveur Passage, where there's a very strong current of up to nine knots. It's here that a hydraulic turbine that could change the lives of Ushant residents was installed 55 meters below sea level last year. It has since been providing a modest portion of their electricity needs, a part that will hopefully continue to grow. It represents a first for France, and a first in the world for such an island.

Using a turbine that's activated by the flowing water in the same way that a wind turbine is activated by the wind, the project is creating electricity. France is well placed to exploit this blue resource, and promises of energy from the abyss are beginning to materialize.

This is a huge challenge for Ushant and its 900 permanent residents â€" four times fewer than a century ago. "Up until the 1960s, men were working in the merchant navy while women maintained a subsistence agriculture," says Mayor Denis Palluel. "This system collapsed, and tourism is now our main activity. It's as if we were nothing but a natural reserve. But with the marine power project, we're once again looking towards the future by reviving our maritime past.”

Seizing the opportunity

The town council approved without hesitation the energy proposal offered by the Sabella start-up from mainland Brittany. Its 15 technicians designed a machine of "technological rusticity," says CEO Jean-François Daviau, who worked for 25 years in the offshore petroleum sector.

The D10 is a colossal machine that operates in a hostile, corrosive environment. It weighs 450 tons, including 100 tons for its tripod alone. It rests on the sea floor, but at 17 meters (56 feet) tall it's as high as a five-story building. The rotor is 10 meters (33 feet) in diameter, and its blades can rotate one way when the tide rises and the other when it recedes.

"It's a demonstrator," Daviau says. "We're still in a learning phase." For this testing period, scheduled to last one year, the turbine's 1.1-megawatt capacity is restrained, currently providing energy to just 50 houses for now. But if the experiment succeeds, a hydraulic power farm comprised of three machines could be installed in the Fromveur Passage two or three years from now, producing enough electricity for half the island.

One of the surrounding lighthouses off of Ushant â€" Photo: Falken

That would represent a dramatic environmental change for Ushant. Located about 20 kilometers from the mainland, this land of rocks and moors isn't connected to the electrical grid. Instead, it draws its power from a plant that burns fuel brought by boat, about 2.2 million liters every year, which releases 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

On a roll

"We're proud of being able to use the island's maritime resources," says the mayor. On top of hydraulic power, the municipality aims to take the energy transition one step further by helping with thermal renovations of houses, distributing low-energy light bulbs, covering the local sports hall with solar panels, and purchasing electric cars that will run on energy drawn from the ocean.

Nature in Ushant is precious. Grey seals and dolphins are plentiful around the island, and its cliffs shelter herring gulls, cormorants and fulmars. That's why before green-lighting the hydraulic turbine project, the Iroise Natural Marine Park proposed a few conditions.

"We recommended that the noise made by the machine under water be monitored, as well as its impact on the wildlife," explains director Philippe Le Niliot. "We also recommended that the sediments be monitored, because the strong currents in the Fromveur Passage bring with them sediments that eventually form dunes in which the fish live."

The machine has therefore been equipped with sensors and cameras to observe its impact on the surroundings and on the ecosystem. But at least one danger seems to have been ruled out: Because the blades make only 13 to 15 rotations per minute, there's no risk of making mincemeat of marine mammals.

Ushant is a pioneer, but bigger projects are being planned elsewhere in Brittany for the next few years. "We're switching from prototypes to an industrial scale," says Pierre-Guy Therond, director of new technology at renewable energy group EDF-Energies Nouvelles. He believes France has the hydraulic potential equivalent to two nuclear reactors. But to extract all that power would take hundreds of turbines, a whole different scale, both technically and environmentally.

For the time being, Ushant dreams only of gaining its energy independence. Now famous thanks to its hydraulic turbine, the island is welcoming delegations from Indonesia and northern Canada, both interested in the technology. Inuits asked about the potential threat that the blades might represent for the seals, explaining that they would never endanger the creature that represents the basis of their diet.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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