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Last Updated: Friday, 9 March 2007, 07:05 GMT
Navarra embraces green energy
By Oana Lungescu
European Affairs correspondent, Navarra, northern Spain

EU leaders meeting in Brussels have agreed - after tough negotiations - to boost the use of renewable energy in Europe to 20% over the next 13 years.

Wind turbines
Navarra is poor in mineral resources, but windy and sunny
At the moment, less than 7% of Europe's needs are covered by wind power, biofuels or solar energy.

But in the Navarra region, in north-eastern Spain, almost 70% of the electricity comes from the wind and the sun.

You do not have to look far in Navarra to see a windmill. Not the sort that Don Quixote fought, but the hi-tech turbines that provide much of the electricity here.

With no coal, oil or gas of its own, this mountainous region deliberately went for renewable energy in the late 1980s.

The first wind farm was built in full view of the regional capital Pamplona, so that people could get used to it.

Now, with some 1,100 windmills dotted all over Navarra, this tiny region is capable of generating more electricity from renewable sources than big EU countries like France or Poland.

Pioneering role

I had a privileged view from the top of one, 80 metres (250 feet) above ground. Going up in a cramped elevator in full security gear, you can feel the windmill swaying gently in the wind as you reach the full height.

Close up, the blades emerge slowly like huge white whales, revealing more rows of windmills on the horizon.

Computer controlled turbines
Wind turbines are computer-controlled
From a control centre outside Pamplona, a team of young operators can turn most mills on and off at the click of a mouse, not just in Spain, but as far as South Korea.

When it comes to renewable energy, companies based in Navarra, like Acciona Energia, are world leaders.

Company spokesman Jose Arieta says the company is looking to increase its exports to the United States, Australia, India and China.

"We are going to invest a lot of money in renewables in the world because we are convinced this is a very relevant sector for the future," Mr Arieta says.

Some 100,000 people work in the green energy sector in Spain, with 4,000 new jobs created in Navarra in the last decade.

As many people are now employed making turbines or solar panels as in car manufacturing, Navarra's traditional industry.

Growth sector

The regional industry secretary, Jose Javier Armendariz, says clean energy is overtaking cars as a source of growth.

Pamplona school
Schools in Pamplona have their own solar panels
"I don't know how many people will be employed in the car industry in the future, but I can't imagine our future without it," Mr Armendariz says. "However, right now our focus is the development of the renewable energy sector."

The regional government has been supporting wind and solar power for years, as do most people in Navarra.

But environmental activists from a local group called Gurelur, "Our Land" in the Basque language, are concerned.

One of their members, Amparo Lazaro, says Gurelur favours renewable energy, but not at any price.

"The wind parks they have built haven't been put in the right places, so they cause environmental damage, and there are too many for the environmental capacity of Navarra. We don't even recognise the landscape of our region any more," Ms Lazaro complains.

And the landscape keeps changing, although Navarra's focus is shifting from wind power, where national government subsidies are set to fall, to solar energy.

Cheap energy

An hour's drive from Pamplona, next to a village called Milagro, I went to see one of the biggest solar parks in Europe.

Mayor with solar panel
On sunny days, the sun doesn't cost us anything
Esteban Garijo, mayor of Milagro
On a field as vast as 50 football pitches, stand row upon row of huge solar panels, tilted to capture as much light as possible.

In a growing trend in Spain, the solar park is a co-operative, with 750 individual owners. The cost of a panel starts at 50,000 euros, but with a tax break from the regional government and a guaranteed annual income there is a long waiting list of willing buyers.

Milagro's mayor Esteban Garijo thinks it is a brilliant investment. "On sunny days, the sun doesn't cost us anything. So not only are we generating clean energy, but we're also making money."

Many in Navarra call it their "solar pension fund", Mr Garijo explains. "They buy a solar panel or two and hope to retire on the profits."

Every generation is playing along. Most schools in Pamplona have their own solar panel, provided by the local town hall.

Every day, the children can learn how much electricity they have fed into the grid and how to save more energy. "We're looking after the Earth", says Suyapa Eguaras, aged 11.

"We are reducing carbon dioxide emissions. At home, I'm also doing other things, like recycling or saving water."

It is the sort of determination and clarity of purpose that Europe's leaders will require in plentiful supply, if they are to take the bold steps needed to fight climate change.


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