A few days ago, I shared some thoughts with our readers about a recent visit to Barcelona, which I think of as “Paris With An Ocean View.” The reason I was in Barcelona was to board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that was repositioning from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean for the winter season.
For those who are not familiar with cruises, these relocation excursions often are priced considerably less than a regular cruise, primarily because there aren’t as many ports of call along the way. For that reason, they are seldom fully booked. In this instance, I was on the Jewel of the Seas, a medium size cruise ship that can accommodate 2600 passengers, but there were only 1100 on board. It was like having the ship all to myself. Sweet!
The original itinerary called for stops at the island of Madeira and in the Azores, but both were mired in clouds and rain, so the decision was made to go to the Canary Islands of the coast of Africa. I knew nothing about our two ports of call — Tenerife and Gran Canaria, but in my mind’s eye I imagined them to be bucolic outposts in the ocean with a few natives living in huts on the edge of a pristine beach.
I must have been thinking of Papeeti or Tahiti. Both islands are in fact bustling, cosmopolitan communities with miles of modern highways, bridges, tunnels, buses, taxis, and cars — lots and lots of cars. There are malls, car dealers, athletic fields, hotels, and even a miniature version of the Sydney Opera House. There are also homes and apartment buildings as far as the eye can see.
Tenerife is just over 2000 square kilometers in size with a population of just under 1 million. One of my traveling companions on the cruise was from Germany and he informed me that Tenerife is to Europeans what Florida is to Americans and Canadians — a winter mecca with warm breezes and lots of sunshine. In fact, almost 5 million people visit Tenerife every year, which makes tourism the island’s number one industry.
Nearby Gran Canaria is 1560 square kilometers in size and has 850,000 inhabitants. Like Tenerife, it feels very much like a part of Spain, with a modern vibe that belies the fact that it is out in the middle of the ocean. Both islands are dominated by ancient volcanoes that offer spectacular views of the islands and the ocean beyond.
An Ode To The Diesel Engine
Like many islands around the world, Tenerife and Gran Canaria exist in their modern form thanks to the diesel engine. Dr. Rudolf Diesel’s miracle machines generate virtually all the electricity used on both islands and also power the desalinization plants needed for potable water and irrigation. The irony of powering such paradises with diesel fuel cannot be overlooked. On Tenerife, there is one lonely wind turbine in the ocean and no solar panels.
Granted, Spain is starting to push renewable energy more than it has in the past several years, but the Canary Islands are way behind the curve. There is no sensible reason they should still be slaves to diesel power. They have access to renewable energy in abundance at prices that are more than competitive. Not only that, they could be enjoying the price stability that comes with renewable energy instead of riding the fossil fuel roller coaster every time some lunatic in Russia decides to invade a neighboring country.
There is also the possibility of geothermal energy. Those volcanoes may be quiescent, but there’s plenty of heat just below the surface to power desalinization plants and electrical generating facilities. Imagine if these islands were fossil fuel free. That would be the ideal situation for their inhabitants. So why hasn’t it happened?
Inertia, most likely. While the Canary Islands are part of Spain, they don’t get the same level of attention from the national government that cities on the mainland enjoy. The tourists come bringing their money with them and that’s all anybody really cares about. The old ways of doing things have kept the islands going until now.
There is also a brain drain that affects the islands. Younger residents find better educational and employment opportunities on the mainland, which means they leave, never to return. Meanwhile, the hotels and shops continue to cater to the European snowbirds and make do as best they can during the off season. It’s a condition of stasis rather than growth.
The Perfect Place For Renewables
The Canary Islands have abundant sunshine and trade winds. The cost of diesel power is high. The cost of renewables is low. Not only that, the price of diesel goes through convulsions every time Vladimir Putin or MBS sneezes. There is no real reason why they aren’t fully powered by renewables except they are islands located far from the seat of government, a problem that afflicts virtually every island everywhere. Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be the most logical explanation.
Which is a real shame. Tenerife and Gran Canaria are wonderful places to visit and live. While island living is celebrated in art and song — Jimmy Buffett built his whole career on tales about him “floating like a stratus cloud above the Caribbean” — in truth, they are usually far outside the mainstream economically. Puerto Rico is a prime example of the damage done by the benign neglect to islands that is common worldwide.
The Canary Islands Takeaway
I didn’t expect to visit the Canary Islands when I left Barcelona, but I’m glad I did. If I had a reason to go back, I would grab it in a heartbeat. They are not the cultural backwaters I expected. They are bustling metropolises with some endearing old residential neighborhoods tucked into the crenelated landscape created by the volcanoes long ago. What they need is to be dragged into the 21st century.
They should be pointing the way to our low carbon future rather than be relics of our fossil fuel past. In order for that to happen, the Spanish government needs to put the right policy and financial opportunities in place, and the sooner the better.
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