“There is no other future. We have to live differently, with clean energy and consume less. And I say that I am a butcher, but that’s the way it is. Hopefully the project comes to fruition ”. Carmen is the butcher of Aras de los Olmos, a small rural town of 380 inhabitants with a great ambition: to supply herself with clean electricity 24 hours a day. Five years ago this unique energy, environmental and anti-depopulation project began, which is now beginning to see the light of day.
The purpose of the City Council of this town in Alto Turia, 110 kilometers from Valencia, is to have a photovoltaic park, a wind turbine, a microhydraulic installation and an innovative biogas plant that will feed on pig slurry, manure and agricultural remains. With the waste the fields will be fertilized and with the excess water it will be irrigated. Aras de los Olmos wants the cleanest energy for a town known for its sky, one of the cleanest and least polluted on the Peninsula, which has attracted the installation at 1,300 meters of altitude of several astronomical observatories.
The project has already received half a million euros from the Ministry for Ecological Transition. The total budget is four million, with which it is intended to implement “the necessary structure to guarantee supply in periods without sun or wind,” says the mayor, the socialist Rafa Giménez. A lot of money for such a small town with very limited resources. However, the plan meets the criteria to receive European funds against covid-19, aid for the ecological transition and against the depopulation of the Government and the Valencian Generalitat. With these future items, the initiative will be promoted after a stage in which bureaucratic and administrative obstacles have been numerous. Sometimes, because the norms did not contemplate that the promoter of the project should be a municipality and not a company or even a community of neighbors; at other times, because their approaches were too novel.
The mayor explains it like this: “Either you believe it a lot or you throw in the towel. Our intention is to value the resources of the municipality, such as the sun, wind, water, biomass, animal and vegetable waste. All this set led us to ask the Polytechnic University of Valencia if it was feasible to carry out a global project ”. From that office of the City Council, the enormous windmills that crown the surrounding mountains can be glimpsed. The energy they produce is destined to other places, far from the town dedicated to livestock – there are several pig farms in the municipality – agriculture and rural tourism.
The professor of Electrical Engineering at the Carlos Roldán Polytechnic was in charge of designing the pilot project that he now directs. He explains that its greatest uniqueness lies “in the municipal use of renewables for public use 24 hours a day”, without resorting to conventional and polluting energy, as happens for a few hours on the Canary island of El Hierro, which also wants to be 100% renewable. The objective of the biogas plant is “to cover the missing hours of other energies”, adds Roldán.
The plant is also part of a European research project. “We saw that it had many possibilities and that it was the culmination of our approach and we got in touch with Manuel Porcar, who was investigating along these lines,” explains the socialist mayor. Porcar, from the Institute of Integrative Systems Biology of the University of Valencia-CSIC, is very hopeful with the project in Aras de los Olmos: “On the one hand, it is very exciting that a municipality wants to be energetically autonomous with its resources; on the other, it is very good for us to have a partner like Aras de los Olmos to use this plant and verify that these optimized microorganisms will work not only on a laboratory scale, but also on a real scale ”.
Optimize biogas to be more robust
The scientist refers to the optimization of the biogas manufacturing process to “obtain one of higher quality, that is produced more quickly, and that is more robust.” For this, there are several technologies, such as “adaptive choice in the laboratory”. “People think that bacteria cause biodegradation, but this is not exactly the case. Bacteria begin to degrade organic matter, but the work is finished by distant cousins, a group of lesser-known microorganisms called archaea, with which we work ”, explains Porcar by phone. The professor coordinates the European research consortium Micro4Biogas (which brings together six countries and 14 institutions and is endowed with 5.7 million euros).
Biogas plants are widespread in Northern Europe, especially in Germany. Spain is very behind in its development, as Porcar warns: “It is true that biogas has worked very well in Germany, partly because there have been subsidies; when they have ceased or declined, the industry has suffered. But the important thing to highlight about biogas is not so much that it is a clean energy that can compete at price level with others, but rather that it is one of the few, if not the only clean, that couples production with the treatment of resources and waste, killing two birds with one stone ”. The construction of the plant is scheduled for the next two years and it is intended to manage all the slurry from the pig farms in the region.
The residents of the town consulted know the plans. Some are suspicious because they have been talking about it for years and because of their great ambition. Like Santiago, who takes the fresh air sitting in front of the door of the family home. “The project is great, very fat. On paper it is very good. Whether it is done remains to be seen. I don’t know if there will be resistance from large companies and monopolies, even if it is a project for a small town, “he says. José Domingo is on the terrace of a bar that has filled up as the sun has fallen: “I have a pig farm with photovoltaics. The project sounds good, but it is a lot of money. I am not clear about it. I have to say that I am also a councilor for the opposition [del PP]. Who will be in charge of transporting the slurry? There are many things to see”. At the butcher shop, two clients join Carmen’s determined support for a project that is becoming a reality.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.