July 26, 2018 / 6:01 AM / 5 months ago

FEATURE-'Sun and Data': Mallorca upgrades to a green tech future

PALMA DE MALLORCA, Spain, July 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - D riving along bumpy tracks past ancient, twisted olive trees, farm manager Joe Holles points to a rare black vulture swooping above the mountain as he shows off a wilder side to the Spanish island of Mallorca, best known for sun, sea and sand tourism.

British-born Holles, 34, a resident of Mallorca since he was five, says it costs six to seven times more to produce organic olive oil on terraced land like this, from trees 700 to 800 years old, than using mechanised methods on the flat.

But in recent months, his job on the Son Moragues estate, near the historic village of Valldemossa, has become easier.

The farm has worked with Palma-based startup IOTLABS to set up a wireless system that gathers data about air and water conditions, as well as the comings and goings of vehicles and sheep on its land, about 420 metres (1,378 ft) above sea level.

“Up here, everything is much more difficult, so a bit of help from technology like this makes all the difference,” Holles told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We feel like we have doubled the workforce with just a few sensors.”

The devices, configured by IOTLABS, convey information via a “Low Power, Wide Area” network called LoRaWAN that connects battery-operated “things” to the internet.

Data is relayed cheaply via an antenna and radio frequency, and fed into an online dashboard.

At Son Moragues, whose olive oil sells in London’s Selfridges and other high-end stores, the Internet of Things (IoT) helps curb water loss if a tank springs a leak by automatically closing taps, Holles said.

In the future, sensors could detect insects carrying a disease that plagues olive trees across Europe, giving early warning.

“There is no way we can work towards sustainability without technology,” Holles said.

CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON

As the Government of the Balearic Islands (GOIB) looks for economic opportunities beyond beach-based tourism, it has launched a “Sun and Data” (“Sol y Datos”) campaign.

Under the tagline “Good news, Clouds in the Balearic Islands”, the push aims to tempt tech entrepreneurs from around the world to the island’s sunny climate, good connectivity and fiscal incentives for investment in research and innovation.

The Balearic Innovation and Technological Park on the outskirts of Palma, known as ParcBit, now has about 170 companies, with more than 3,000 workers.

Benjamí Villoslada Gil, GOIB’s director-general of technological development, said the goal is to create higher-skilled, better-paying jobs than in the tourism industry, and bring digital advances to residents’ doorsteps.

“Everything you do in data, in software, you have to be creative - and it is easier to be creative in a place like paradise,” he said.

The government has installed a LoRaWAN network, using antennae each covering 14 square km, across Mallorca to support more efficient management of natural resources and improved public services for its nearly 870,000 inhabitants.

WATER SCARCITY

The western municipality of Esporles now has an antenna on its town-hall roof, and in June launched a monitoring system with IOTLABS sensors attached to its water mains, transmitting data on how much is used.

Mayor Maria Ramon Salas said the picturesque inland town has added about 1,000 people over a decade to reach 5,000 inhabitants, but the town administration has not increased its staff - and IoT technology can help them work more efficiently.

While Esporles normally gets a plentiful supply of water from the Serra de Tramuntana mountains, things were different in 2015-2016 when Mallorca suffered a bad drought, she said.

“People became very aware of the problems we had with water shortages. We worked on this with citizens and they responded very well, and cut their consumption,” said the 30-year-old. “Now they are more convinced that natural resources are a very scarce public good.”

Partnering with IOTLABS, Esporles plans to add air-quality monitoring - to detect potential contamination from a nearby waste incinerator - as well as traffic sensors and digital panels showing parking spaces, to ease congestion and pollution.

Joan Groizard Payeras, director-general of energy and climate change for GOIB, said Mallorca’s natural water supply is expected to decline as the planet warms, while demand for water rises with the heat.

The island is working to tackle the situation by reducing consumption, publishing a monthly report on water reserves, and using untreated water to irrigate golf courses.

The government is also using some of the proceeds from its “tax for sustainable tourism”, levied on overnight stays, for projects to improve water management in the Balearics.

Nonetheless, Mallorca was slow to start dealing with climate change, Groizard noted.

“We have been unfortunately very successful (with tourism), so we’ve not had to innovate, (and) we are not used to having to do new things,” he said.

That attitude has shifted in the past two years, he said, with a growing consensus on the need to save water, recycle waste, and shift to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, up from just 2 percent now.

ELECTRIC TRANSPORT

Greening transport on the island - which sees traffic jams in the summer season - is an urgent challenge, officials said.

No new diesel cars will be allowed on Mallorca from 2025, nor petrol vehicles from 2035. Electric-vehicle charging points are being added faster than anywhere in Spain, Groizard said.

GOIB tech chief Villoslada suggested technology could help solve the island’s shortage of public transport - it has only two train lines - by enabling a fleet of autonomous electric buses, for which Mallorca could serve as a test ground.

Electric bicycles could also ease pressure on roads, said Christian Bolz, a tech project developer working with startup Urban Drivestyle to expand e-bike use in Mallorca and Berlin.

Its trendy hire bikes will be stored in lockers at hotels and operated via an app aimed at tourists, especially from cycling-friendly northern Europe, said Palma-based Bolz.

Mallorca desperately needs an alternative to cars, with tens of thousands shipped in and out for rental each year, he said.

IOTLABS, which moved from Barcelona to Mallorca two years ago, views the island as a technology test bed - like an “isolated planet”, said co-founder Marta Cirera.

The young company is now talking to other islands interested in using their natural resources more sustainably - from managing fresh water, to recycling and producing less waste.

"What is measured can be improved," said Cirera. "Once we know, we can take some action to reduce consumption." (Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)

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