Finding climate solutions in a Spanish village with technology
LA ALMUNIA DE DOÑA GODINA, Spain — Criss-crossed by irrigation canals — one of which was built by the Moors in the Middle Ages — and surrounded by fields filled with orchards of peach, apple and cherry trees, this place, at first sight, is a traditional fruit-farming village in northeastern Spain.
But in June last year, La Almunia received an unlikely accolade for a village of around 8,000 people: the Spanish government named it “City of Science and Innovation”. The title has been awarded annually since 2010 to cities and towns that promote research and development in the public and private sectors. The award-winning cities form a network in which they share ideas and present innovations. And each city receives an annual grant, renewable every four years, to hire “innovation managers” who can identify opportunities for local technological development.
Marta Gracia Blanco, mayor of La Almunia, said the title, which was awarded to 20 municipalities in the country last year, including four towns with less than 20,000 inhabitants, was more than justified. Behind its rural facade, La Almunia is a hub of sustainable technological innovation.
At an egg farm on the outskirts of town, a start-up claims to have powered the world’s first tractor on biomethane produced entirely from chicken droppings. A laboratory at the sewage treatment plant purifies wastewater with environmentally friendly aquatic plants. And at the local kindergarten, the new air-source solar heat pump, which generates underfloor heating, is a hit with the village’s toddlers.
“Children like to touch the ground and lie down,” said María José Díaz, a 63-year-old teacher.
La Almunia is a small town, doing its part to use technology in new ways to fight climate change, which is among the topics discussed as leaders of business, science, culture and politics gather Thursday and Friday in Busan, South Korea, for a New York Times conference, A New Climate.
“There is a lot of innovation here because we are the only village in Spain to have its own public university,” said Ms Gracia Blanco.
Founded 56 years ago by a religious order, the University Polytechnic of La Almunia (EUPLA) was taken over by the city council in 1980. The university now has around 650 undergraduate students – all studying disciplines engineering – and a thriving research department.
For his final year project, 23-year-old Jesús Sancho, who graduated last year from EUPLA with a degree in mechatronics, helped design a machine that could – if built – automate the collection of sludge samples. and oxygen in wastewater and lead to greater energy efficiency in wastewater treatment plants. He now works for the La Almunia wastewater treatment plant.
He said he was happy not to have to work in a city, like so many young people in Spain. “Life is better in a village if you are able to find a job with a high level of job satisfaction,” he said. “Especially one that helps improve the environment.”
Last year, rising electricity prices after the Russian invasion of Ukraine increased demand for village council licenses to install solar panels. According to Gracia Blanco, most of the 46 applications received since February 2022 have been made by fruit growers, hoping to reduce the cost of pumping irrigation water from their wells.
Victor Manuel Martínez, a 53-year-old fruit grower, has installed solar panels on his 62-acre farm, which sits on high ground on the outskirts of town with no irrigation canals. Over the centuries, vines have been cultivated there for table wine. But with the ability to use electricity to pump groundwater to the surface, farmers began to turn to the more profitable cultivation of cherries, apples and peaches in the 1970s.
Mr. Martínez used to irrigate his fruit trees at night, when grid electricity was the cheapest. But now, if the sun is shining – and it usually is – it gets all the power it needs from solar panels during the day.
The new system, he explained, not only saves him money, but also allows him to control irrigation in different areas of his farm from his mobile phone.
The renewable energy efforts of local fruit growers got Gracia Blanco thinking. She decided to offer the roofs of the municipal buildings – including the retirement home and the youth hostel – to local families who could not invest in solar energy because, unlike farmers, they did not have the space to install panels.
With the help of Carlos Pesqué, energy communities manager at Ecodes, a non-profit environmental association based in Zaragoza, Spain, Ms. Gracia Blanco is putting together a plan that offers villagers the opportunity to invest, depending on their consumption needs.
“An investment in two panels could cost around €1,000 [about $1,100] and would generate an energy package of 1,200 to 1,500 kilowatt hours per year,” said Pesqué. “It could meet the daytime needs of a family of four.”
Although electricity from municipal rooftop facilities would be routed to the grid, plan participants would see up to a 40% reduction in their energy bills for 25 years, under current Spanish distribution law. energy, and they could expect a return on their initial investment in four or five years, according to Pesqué.
“It’s a very good opportunity,” said Sergio Callejas, 52, owner of a bookstore in downtown La Almunia. He wants to invest in energy packages for his store and his house, above the store, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Excited to participate in a new energy model based on collective consumption, Mr Callejas would not object to paying a slightly higher premium to allow low-income families to join the plan for free. “We should all be entitled to cheap energy,” he said. “The sun is there for everyone.”
La Almunia also has plentiful supplies of chicken droppings – around 300 tonnes are produced daily at local egg farms and distributed to local farmers as fertilizer due to the high nitrate content.
A start-up called BiogasDT has built a pilot biogas refinery on La Almunia’s largest egg farm, Grupo Bailón. The refinery captures methane from 2.5 tonnes of fresh chicken droppings each day – before it can evaporate into the atmosphere. Then the methane is converted into a renewable gas called biomethane.
“This is a game-changer,” said Paul Nikitovich, CEO of BiogasDT. He said biomethane from hen droppings – and other livestock manures – could be used as a renewable, non-fossil fuel option for farm vehicles – if fitted with special compressed natural gas tanks instead. as, or in addition to, diesel or petrol tanks. The liquid residue from the refinery can also be used as a biofertilizer, “pathogen-free, odorless and fly-free,” Nikitovich said.
Last October, Nikitovich installed a biomethane gas pump at the refinery and filled a methane-powered tractor with renewable fuel. The tractor was then used to spread biofertilizer on a field. “If you produce biomethane locally and use it locally, you can reduce the carbon footprint of transportation,” he said.
But no local farmer has yet invested in agricultural vehicles equipped with natural gas engines, according to Sergio Nerin, vice-president of the local agricultural cooperative, Cosanse.
With a retail price of around $162,000, “biomethane-powered tractors cost significantly more than diesel-powered tractors,” Nerin said.
Still, Ms. Gracia Blanco, the mayor, understands the value of testing new sustainable models, even on a small scale.
“We are a village, so we are not going to stop climate change,” she said. “But we can serve as an example.”