Household solar panels
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An Island That Wants to Survive
By Julio Godoy
Wind and sun produce 70 percent of the electricity in Foehr, an island in northern Germany in the North Sea that is fighting against rising sea levels.
FOHER, Germany, (Tierramérica).- On this island in northern Germany, nearly 70 percent of the electricity comes from the wind and the sun, through processes that are free of so-called greenhouse gases, but the 9,000 inhabitants know that their efforts are not enough to stop the advance of the sea, which has already risen enough to cover more than half of the territory.
Every time that Arwin Nahems turns on the hot water faucet in his house, a feeling of respect for the environment overcomes him. Almost all the energy that he and his family consume is generated from renewable sources.
Nahems, 59, an engineer and pioneer of renewable energy production on Foehr, installed the first wind turbine on the island more than 10 years ago. In an interview with Tierramérica, he recalled how his efforts at first ran into numerous obstacles created by the regional and national government bureaucracies.
"I ran from one office to another and filled out forms left and right," says Nahems. More than 10 years later, he can congratulate himself for his ability to overcome all the bureaucratic hurdles.
Today, Foehr, one of the Frisian Islands in the North Sea, is a model of electricity production that respects the environment. About 70 percent of the island's electrical energy comes from wind turbines and solar panels.
For the inhabitants of Foehr, the use of alternative energy sources is a matter of survival, says Anne Marie Lubcke, an environmental activist. More than half of the island's territory is already underwater. If global warming continues and the sea levels rise as the glaciers in the polar regions melt, the island will disappear, she explains.
But Lubcke adds that the people of Foehr are aware that their actions alone will not stop climate change. However, following the slogan "Think globally, act locally," they understand the urgency of adapting their activities and customs to the limits imposed by the need to preserve the planet.
Nearly all of the island's economic activities, from farming to restaurant and hotel services, consume energy generated primarily from the wind and the sun.
Luc Marechal, a cook born in Marseilles and accustomed to the sunny French Mediterranean seaside, moved to Foehr in 2000. He says he admires the German tenacity that led Nahems and his partners to extend the energy plan to the island's entire population, even though there are fewer hours of sunshine here than in the warmer southern regions of Europe.
"In my Marseilles of birth, we hardly use energy from the sun and wind, despite having both in abundance," he told Tierramérica. "The German ecologists should serve as an example to the French," Marechal added.
This local effort is now reflected in the energy policy of the northern state of Schleswig-Holsteins, of which the island is part, and whose government established in 1998 that by the year 2010, one-quarter of the electricity consumed must come from wind-generated sources. Currently, Schleswig-Holsteins produces more than 1,800 megawatts of electricity from the wind.
According to figures from the European energy agency, Germany is the world leader in the use of renewable sources, with more than 15,000 megawatts of wind energy, and is the country with the largest surface for collecting solar energy in the world, with some six million square meters of solar cells in use.
The German total represents 40 percent of the solar panel surface area in all countries of the European Union (EU).
The disparities amongst the European countries are quite big in energy terms: Germany has 10 times greater capacity in solar panels than France, despite the comparative climate advantages of the latter.
The EU is a world leader in clean energy production. In 2003 it generated 28,452 megawatts from the wind, while North America produced less than 7,000, Asia a little more than 3,000 and the rest of the world just 522 megawatts.
According to these figures, Latin America plays a marginal role in generating electricity from the sun and wind. However, energy from hydroelectric plants in the region -- a total of around 550 gigawatts per hour -- is the most in the world, and has seen a 500-percent increase since 1972.
But despite Europe's leadership, efforts by activists like Nahems still represent a small slice of the energy pie. In the EU, one-fifth of the electricity continues to be produced from coal, a leading source of carbon dioxide, the main culprit behind global warming.
It is the emissions of so-called greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that could end up submerging the island of Foehr, if global efforts are not made to reverse climate change reverse the ever-rising tides.
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.