Spain's northern coast pioneers wave energy

Editor's note: Need a refresher on the basics of the climate change debate as Copenhagen gets underway? Read GlobalPost's exclusive guide.

ARMINZA, Spain — Spanish sun and Quixote's tilting windmills are renewable energy pictures that most often come to mind in Spain. Yet fishermen and surfers in towns along the northern Spanish coastline have long known of another natural energy source.

Waves are the target for the new Biscay Marine Energy Platform (BIMEP), currently being installed in the Basque village of Arminza. Looking to tap the energy of waves and distribute it throughout a power grid, BIMEP promises to be one of the most advanced energy systems in all of Europe.

But villagers welcome the project with mixed feelings. Distrust in what may come with BIMEP moves like an undercurrent in town. There’s a haunting heritage of opposition to energy plants on this coast that dates back to the 1970s, when the Lemoniz nuclear station was being planned for the area.

From the open sea to its land base, the 15-million euro BIMEP, promoted by EVE, or Ente Vasco de la Energia, the Basque energy board, will research, test and operate wave-energy systems.

A moored web energy converter, partly surfacing offshore, captures wave movement and transforms it into electricity that travels down through an umbilical cable to a dynamic cable on the seabed. This dynamic cable and others from other converters meet in a junction box. A static cable transmits all energy reaching the junction box to shore, where conventional underground terrestrial cables bring it to a substation. Fiber optic lines will carry data from the sea platform to shore. 

This wave energy infrastructure needs no fuel, and the goal is to provide 10 percent of the electricity in the Basque Country and up to 50 percent of electricity in Basque homes by 2020. The resulting CO2 emission savings of between 1.1 and 1.54 million tons annually are comparable to removing 25 percent of the cars from Basque roads in the same period, according to EVE.

But clean energy and becoming a model for marine technology is not enough for residents of this remote area.

“Almost nobody is in agreement,” said 74-year-old Jose Mari Martinez, an Arminza resident and retired fisherman.

Arminza, population 600, used to be a fishing village. Though only a few people still fish for a living, sport and leisure fishing remains popular. Fishermen fear the platform will reduce access to an area rich in crab, hake and conger eel. Environmental studies concluded the platform will have no impact on sea life, according to EVE, but the platform area will be off-limits for fishermen. “Fishermen argue small cuttlefish concentrate in the platform area, but cuttlefish banks move,” said Jose Ramon Epelde, EVE’s director of communication.

Fishermen greeted my questions with angry grimaces. One rushed by as he muttered, “I’m a fisherman, don’t make me talk, I’d rather not talk.”

Another factor in the minds of many of the older Arminza residents is the abandoned Lemoniz nuclear station, located about a mile down the road.

In the 1970s and early 80s, residents vented their fierce opposition to a government-planned nuclear station in Lemoniz by mounting large street demonstrations. ETA, the self-proclaimed defender of the Basque land — listed as a terrorist organization by Spain and the European Union — waged a bloody battle against the nuclear station, killing three workers and two engineers before forcing the project to a halt. The Spanish government eventually abandoned the plan, the station was dismantled and ETA claimed a victory, which some Basques still justify.

Since then, disagreement over a tentative proposal converting the nuclear energy station into a combined cycle steam plant continues to run high in the area. The plant in Lemoniz looms eerily over a post-nuclear ghost town. Crashing waves and seagull calls break the imposing silence of the dull cement buildings overlooking a picturesque green coast. Built but never used, this station could have one functional piece left — handily installed electrical distribution lines that could be used for the wave energy platform.

At a playground next to the harbor, two young couples were chatting as they watched over their children. When asked, they all agreed they welcomed BIMEP’s clean energy. “The biggest concern is how it’s going to affect fishing,” said one of the young men, Asier Goti.

On the wharf, walking with Martinez, a middle-age woman, who did not want to reveal her name, voiced suspicion. “What if they’re only building this wave platform to confuse people and will eventually build the steam power plant anyway?”

EVE opened a temporary information booth on the harbor last July. Naira Saiz is a young lady who greets the 20 people who come to see the exhibit of maps and video each day. Sporting a hip EVE T-shirt with a surfer on the front and short summer shorts, Saiz said she’s heard a bit of everything from visitors.

“Some people here don’t like anything new,” she observed. “They were against the nuclear station, they are against the steam power plant, and now they are against this too — don’t they watch TV at home?”