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Northern Spanish region leads way on renewable energy

In just a decade, the northeastern Spanish region of Navarra has made a name for itself by leading Europe's charge towards increased use of renewable energy.

Non-fossil fuels already account for 61 percent of electricity consumed in Navarra, and Javier Belarra, a senior official in the regional ministry of industry, told AFP "our latest forecast is to reach self-sufficiency by 2010."

By contrast, the figure at the national level is currently just 10 percent.

Navarra, a mainly mountainous region bordering France, has long since pushed way beyond that, and in so doing has roused the praise of the European Commission, which in a video to be distributed around some 30 countries displays the region as a shining example.

Windpower is the chief source of renewable energy in Navarra, accounting in its own right for 43.6 percent of overall electricity consumption.

That's well ahead of the 12-percent share taken by around 100 river-powered mini turbines and a further 5.3 percent accounted by biofuels -- combustible organic matter such as straw.

These sources, along with solar and wave power, are now being eagerly explored around the world as low-cost, clean sources of energy to offset the soaring price and carbon pollution of oil, gas and coal. Reflecting this surge in interest, an international conference on alternative energies opens in Bonn on Tuesday.

The renewables sector is also spurring an export boom for Spanish technology, with the Gamesa group, one of the world's main wind turbine manufacturers, in recent months signing several multimillion-euro (-dollar) deals with China.

Gamesa says it has sold or agreed the sale of 137 turbines to China, many earmarked for the Ningxia-Helanshan wind farm in northwestern China.

Navarra's focus on renewable energy sources mushroomed from modest beginnings.

In the early 1990s, the regional auhorities installed small hydraulic generators along rivers in a region which then did not produce any electricity at all.

To do this, the regional autonomous government and private shareholders set up Energia Hidroelectrica de Navarra (EHN), which in 2000 basked in the award of "world's best renewable energy firm," the accolade bestowed upon it by the Financial Times.

Company spokesman Jose Arrieta recalls how EHN's first step into wind power was to take windforce measurements at 72 points across the region, at altitudes ranging from 700 (2,275 feet) to 1,100 metres (3,575 feet).

Having concluded the project was viable, the regional government drew up a plan in 1995 to push for ever greater use of renewable energy sources, particularly windfarms, as technological gains made these turbines more efficient.

The policy has since won support from the likes of Emilio Rull, energy issues specialist with environmental pressure group Greenpeace.

EHN insists it has been careful neither to construct windfarms in Pyrenean mountain beauty spots, nor in areas where the whirling blades could endanger wildlife. The company has also recently extended the distance between each generator from an initial 50 metres (yards) to 200 metres (yards).

The first turbines to go up were sited on hills outside regional capital Pamplona.

Others have since been installed in accessible, pedestrian areas with a view to familiarising local people with a source of energy that they have increasingly come to appreciate, to the delight of environmentalists.

"There was no question of hiding them. We wanted the people of Navarra to realise their importance and their benefit," according to EHN.

Navarra now has more than 1,000 turbines in 27 windfarms, 21 of which are owned by EHN.

Developing reusable energy sources has developed a whole new industrial sector and brought 3,500 jobs to the region while education authorities have sought to inculcate secondary school students with the project's environmental values.

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