Read in Catalan

The Catalan boy who from the age of six helped his parents to work the land and take care of the cattle in Estamariu is still known as Joan in his native town, from which he has never been separated, even though in Barcelona he is better known as Senyor Planes. Senyor Joan Planes, that is, founder of Fluidra, an Ibex-35 company and one of the world leaders in swimming pool manufacture, who passed the baton of leading the business to his son Eloi seven years ago. Now, he devotes much of his time and energy to building a legacy on his home patch of earth. With the Planes Corts Foundation, which he created last year, he wants to turn Estamariu and the neighbouring town of Bescaran into the first municipalities in Catalonia to operate fully with renewable energy. Photovoltaic energy and biogas (via a plant that processes organic waste) are the technologies chosen to help these small towns become self-supporting in energy, with a mini-hydroelectric plant as an element that might be added later.

That means that not a single gram of fossil fuel will be burned so that the 208 residents (129 in Estamariu, 79 in Bescaran) can watch television, wash clothes, cook dinner and light the two hotels in Estamariu. The Foundation starts with an investment of 1.2 million euros, assisted with a grant of 385,000 euros from the European Union's Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plans, which must be implemented before the end of the year. To make it possible, a community energy association has been created for the Alt Urgell-Vall del Port Negre, authorized by Spain's IDAE (Institute for Diversification and Saving of Energy). Thus, the members of the community will be supplied with energy from the solar panels that are to be installed on some roofs in the two towns as well as from the biogas generated from organic waste (such as food scraps and cow manure), which will not only remove a rubbish nuisance, but will also serve to cover a large part of the valley's energy needs.

"For us, sustainability is the transformation of indigenous resources into clean energy for self-consumption, so that people living in the rural world can work from their villages in trades that are related to natural resources or make use of communications tech, and that the projects that are generated are economically self-sustaining", explains Joan Planes, to ON ECONOMIA, convinced of the "desire to get the population settled in the mountain towns and increase the quality of life of the people who live and work there". To do so, he argues, collaborative relationships must be established with other entities, public and private.

Joan Planes, presidente de la fundación Planas Corts
Joan Planes, president of the Planes Corts Foundation.

His son Eloi Planes, current executive president of Fluidra, recalls that his father's passion for water was born with the observation of the Bescaran river, and that fifty years later this project was born "based on innovation, technology, agriculture and livestock". "We are sure that the rural world has incredible potential and provides a quality of life that is already difficult to find in the big cities", he adds, while his sister, Eulàlia Planes, CEO of Dispur, the family's investment arm, remember that this is "closely linked to Estamariu". "Apart from the emotional bonds that exist, we are convinced of the potentialities of the rural world as a reservoir of energy, food and biodiversity, and we want to contribute to boosting the economy and preserving identity".

The project has the approval of the Estamariu municipal council and is already starting to involve the residents. It is expected that 640,000 kWh will be generated annually, 540,000 from biogas and 100,000 from photovoltaic panels. In the area, however, only 500,000 kWh are needed, so the energy community will be able to sell 10% of the energy it generates, with an annual income forecast of 115,000 euros, while the extra fertilizer that the biogas plant will generate will be able to contribute 27,000 euros each year.

From biogas to workshops

Biogas is an ecological energy alternative. On the one hand, it can be used to create electricity; on the other it can be burnt as a fuel for heat, and unlike fossil fuel it is clean energy, because the CO2 emitted from its burning is that which was captured by the growing of the plants on which it is ultimately based. It also makes use of the farm residues that generate environmental waste and eliminates odours, thus combating two environmental problems, energy and waste. The biogas plant will be the main investment in the Foundation's energy project, with a budget of 1,029,816 euros. It is a small plant, which will process ten tons of manure and slurry a day along with a daily ton of organic waste. It will all be converted into thermal and electrical energy as well as producing a high quality fertilizer. As for the solar panels for self-consumption, they will cost around 189,000 euros.

There are other projects that have already been launched, such as a shared workshop for dairy products, where it is hoped that the breeders and farmers of the region will be able to diversify and boost their economy through local production. And as the idea is to generate employment and provide training to both local people and anyone who might be interested, the Foundation is promoting workshops for different trades that can be carried out in the rural environment. The "Tastet d'Oficis" cycle - "Trying out trades" - offers small doses of learning about skills ranging from writing to basketry, including the identification and use of edible wild plants and the restoration of furniture. The first of the workshops - on the secrets of making cheese - was held on January 22nd and served to warm the town to the idea of a shared workshop.

The construction of the energy facilities will also generate temporary jobs, while their maintenance will create some permanent ones, essential in a region with an unemployment rate of 9.24%. The Foundation hopes that, with these projects and the workshop, the town's economy will be boosted and the population will soon be able to be illuminated, heated and entertained thanks to the energy generated, in large part, from cow dung and other organic waste.