Victor Manuel Martínez, a 53-year-old fruit grower, installed solar panels on his 62-hectare farm.Credit...Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times
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LA ALMUNIA DE DOÑA GODINA, Spain — Crossed by irrigation canals — one of which was built by the Moors in the Middle Ages — and surrounded by fields full of peach, apple and cherry trees, this place, at first glance, is a traditional fruit - rural village in northeastern Spain.
But in June last year, La Almunia received the unlikelydiscriminationfor a village with a population of about 8,000 inhabitants: 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. Award-winning cities form a network where they share ideas and present innovations. And each city receives an annual grant, renewable every four years, to hire "innovation officers" capable of identifying opportunities for local tech development.
Marta Gracia Blanco, mayor of La Almunia, said the title, awarded to 20 municipalities across the country last year, including four cities with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants, is more than justified. Behind its rural facade, La Almunia is a center of sustainable technological innovation.
At an egg farm on the outskirts of the city, a startup claims to have run the world's first tractor on biomethane produced entirely from chicken droppings. A laboratory at the water treatment plant cleans the wastewater with environmentally friendly aquatic plants. And at the local kindergarten, the new solar-powered heat pump that produces underfloor heating is a big hit with the village children.
"The kids like to touch the floor and lie down," said Maria Jose Diaz, a 63-year-old teacher.
La Almunia is a small town doing its part to use technology in new ways to tackle climate change, which is among the topics discussed as leaders from business, science, culture and politics gather on Thursday and Friday in Busan, South Korea forNew York Times Conference, A New Climate.
"There is a lot of innovation here because we are the only village in Spain that has its own public university," said Ms. Grace Blanco.
It was founded 56 years ago by a religious order, thePolytechnic School of La Almunia (EUPLA)it was taken over by the city council in 1980. The university now has around 650 undergraduates - all studying engineering - and a thriving research department.
For his latest project, Jesús Sancho, 23, who graduated last year from EUPLA in mechatronics, helped design a machine that could - if built - automate the collection of sludge and oxygen samples in wastewater and lead to greater energy performance in the processing units. He now works for the La Almunia sewage treatment plant.
He said he was glad he didn't have to work in a city like so many young people in Spain. "Life is better in a village if you can find a job with a high level of satisfaction," he said. "Especially one that helps improve the environment."
Last year, the rise in electricity prices after theRussian invasion of Ukraineled to a tenfold increase in requests for permits from the village council to install solar panels. According to Gracia Blanco, most of the 46 requests received since February 2022 were made by fruit growers, hoping to reduce the cost of pumping water to irrigate their wells.
Victor Manuel Martínez, a 53-year-old fruit grower, installed solar panels on his 62-hectare farm, which is located on high ground on the outskirts of the city without irrigation canals. Over the centuries, vines were grown here for table wine. But with the ability to use electricity to pump groundwater to the surface, farmers began to switch to the more profitable crop of cherries, apples and peaches in the 1970s.
Mr. Martinez watered his fruit trees at night when the electricity grid was cheaper. But now, if the sun is shining - and it usually is - it gets all the energy it needs from the solar panels during the day.
The new system, he explained, apart from saving money, allows him to control irrigation in various areas of his farm from his mobile phone.
The efforts of local fruit growers in renewable energy sources have made Ms. Gracia Blanco think. He decided to offer the roofs of municipal buildings – including the nursing home and 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, Head of Energy Communities at Ecodes, a non-profit environmental organization based in Zaragoza, Spain, Ms. Gracia Blanco is drawing up a plan that offers villagers the opportunity to invest according to their consumption needs.
"An investment in two panels could cost around 1,000 euros [about 1,100 US dollars] and would produce an energy package of 1,200 to 1,500 kilowatt-hours per year," Peske said. "This could cover the daily needs of a family of four."
Although electricity from municipal rooftop installations would be fed into the grid, project participants would see up to a 40% reduction in their energy bills over 25 years under current Spanish energy distribution legislation and could expect a return on their initial investment them in four or five years, according to Pesqué.
"This is a really good opportunity," said Sergio Callejas, 52, who owns a bookstore in downtown La Almunia. He wants to invest in energy packages for his shop and his house above the shop, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Excited to be part of a new energy model based on collective consumption, Callejas is not opposed to paying a slightly higher premium to allow low-income families to buy into the program for free. "We should all have the right to cheap energy," he said. "The sun is there for everyone."
La Almunia also has abundant supplies of chicken droppings - around 300 tons are produced each day at local egg farms and distributed to local farmers as fertilizer due to its high nitrate content.
A startup called BiogasDT built a pilot biogas refinery at La Almunia's largest egg farm, Grupo Bailón. The refinery captures methane from 2.5 tonnes of fresh chicken droppings every day - before it evaporates into the atmosphere. The methane is then converted into a renewable gas called biomethane.
"It's a game changer," said Paul Nikitovich, CEO of BiogasDT. He said biomethane from chicken droppings - and other animal manure - could be used as a renewable, non-fossil fuel for farm vehicles - if they are equipped with special compressed natural gas tanks instead of or also tanks for diesel or petrol. Liquid residue from the refinery can also be used as biofertilizer, "pathogen-free, odorless and fly-free," Nikitovich said.
Last October, Mr. Nikitovich installed a biomethane gas pump at the refinery and filled atractor with methanewith renewable fuels. The tractor was then used to spread biofertilizer in a field. "If you produce biomethane locally and use it locally, you can reduce your CO2 transport footprint," he said.
However, no local farmers have yet invested in agricultural vehicles with natural gas engines, according to Sergio Nerin, vice president of the local agricultural cooperative, Cosanse.
With a retail price of about $162,000, "biomethane-powered tractors cost a lot more than diesel-powered tractors," Nerin said.
However, Gracia Blanco, the mayor, understands the value of testing new sustainable models, even on a small scale.
"We're a village, so we're not going to stop climate change," he said. "But we can be an example."
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