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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Canary Islands by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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Fuel Poverty

Fuel Poverty

We paid our electricity bill this week, or rather it was debited from our bank account without any warning. It has always irritated me that the electricity companies in Spain and the Canary Islands feel that they can take whatever they wish from our bank account without letting us know in advance; it is the same with the water company too. In the Canary Islands, electricity and water bills usually arrive two or three weeks after the payment has been taken from bank accounts, which makes careful budgeting, particularly for those on a low income, very difficult.

I am sure that most people find that monthly electricity bills increase and rarely is there any movement downwards. In our home, over the last few years, we have gradually changed to energy efficient lighting and appliances, but the increase in cost whilst consumption remains steady is often staggering.

It is of course, the poorest in society that are most affected by high electricity bills. Terms such as ‘Fuel Poverty’ or ‘Energy Poverty’ are some of the current meaningless phrases designed to make this serious issue somehow socially more acceptable. For many people, this can mean an impossible choice between keeping warm or eating. In the Canary Islands, those regarded as ‘vulnerable’, as well as large families can apply for a ‘social bonus’, which is designed to ease the cost of such bills by providing a discount. Unfortunately, as is the case with many such schemes in Spain, the system is unnecessarily complicated and bureaucratic, which many families simply do not understand and such schemes often end up causing more harm than good.

The best way of avoiding energy poverty is to reduce the cost of electricity through the promotion and investment in renewable energy. This will come in time, assuming that the oil companies and politicians allow it, but in the meantime, efforts are being made to encourage municipalities to provide emergency fuel aid for those families that cannot pay their electricity bills and the supply is cut off.Local politicians are rightly making the point that that residents of the Canary Islands have a right to receive electricity at a price that is equivalent to residents living in Peninsular Spain, even though the costs of producing electricity on the islands are three times as high.

In the Canary Islands, we have an abundance of sunshine, wind and wave power, but the dilatory manner in which these renewable sources are being utilised is staggering. There are examples to the contrary, of course, with the island of El Hierro leading the way with massive investment in renewable sources, which is already making a huge difference to the lives of islanders, as well as a massive reduction in carbon emissions and is often quoted as a positive example by researchers in other countries.

The Canary Islands are located just a short distance from Africa, and it was interesting to hear researchers recently claim that the installation of huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines in the Sahara Desert would have a major impact on rainfall, vegetation and temperatures. The action of wind turbines and solar panels would double the amount of rain that currently falls on the Sahara, which would have a huge and positive impact upon the region, allowing vegetation to flourish.

In addition, according to the researchers’ calculations, a massive installation of solar panels and wind farms in the desert would generate more than four times the amount of energy that the world currently uses each year. If such plans were ever to come to fruition, it could potentially end the issue of fuel poverty once and for all. However, one can only imagine the blocking mechanisms of the oil industry and investors in the energy market.

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Red, White or Blue?

Red, White or Blue?

I must first confess to having a very simplistic knowledge of wine. I know what I like and what I don’t like. I will not spend a lot of time and money on fancy labels, nor will I indulge in that ridiculous time-wasting drama of ‘someone who knows wine’ - tasting it before it is poured knowingly by the waiter. If the wine is ‘off’, I would send it back. As an alternative, just sniff the cork; it really is that simple, and saves an awful lot of time.

What colour of wine do you prefer? I like white wine during a sunny lunchtime snack and maybe a chilled red during a warm evening. I tend to opt for a Canarian or Spanish wine, mainly out of loyalty to my adopted country, but I guess that my favourites are the island wines, and particularly those from Lanzarote. Now what about a blue wine?

I had the pleasure of trying a blue wine recently. I was initially a little doubtful, but since blue is my favourite colour and it was glowing temptingly in the sunshine, I didn’t hesitate. After the first tentative sip, I knew that I was hooked. Not only did the deep, rich blue colour look amazing, but it suited my palette perfectly. Yes, it was on the sweet side, but it was the kind of sweetness that fits so well on a hot sunny day by the swimming pool or in a bar overlooking the sea.

To many ‘wine connoisseurs’, the very idea of a blue wine is truly a horrific concept, yet it is already made in several Spanish wineries. I am told that blue wine is a mix of mainly white and a little red wine, as well as freshly crushed grape juice. The blue colour is based upon using two pigments, anthocyanin, which is found in the skin of red grapes, and indigo carmine. It is best described as a blend of technology and the best that nature can provide.

I am also told that blue wine has received mixed reviews, including from the Paris ‘Ritz’, who described it as “surprising”. Whether that is ‘surprisingly good’ or ‘surprisingly bad’, I have yet to find out, whilst the UK’s Telegraph referred to it as “a gimmick”, which probably means it is very nice, but they don’t want anyone else to know about it.

Sadly, in Europe the new blue wine has to be labelled as an “alcoholic drink”, since the authorities have decreed that it cannot be a wine, because it is blue, which leaves me very confused about the status of rosé wine.

Enterprising Spanish wineries are now producing a wide range of alternatives to the usual red and white wines. It is now possible to buy a blue, sparkling cava, a red wine that is infused with Earl Grey tea, as well as a white wine that includes a hint of Sencha tea from Japan, which sound challenging. There is also another newcomer to the range that is red and spicy, called ‘Bastarde’. I am not at all sure about that one, so think I will maintain my loyalty to wines from Lanzarote and the other islands, but I do recommend that you try the blue wine if you get the opportunity.

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Unemployment Good, Employment Bad

Unemployment Good, Employment Bad

I heard a UK economist on the radio this week complaining about high employment levels in the country. Apparently, high employment is bad for the economy, since it forces wage and salary levels upwards, which is bad for UK exports and the overall economy. Conversely, high unemployment level is preferable, according to this economist, since it creates “a competitive employment background”, which results in wage stability and even a reduction in production costs (for this read overall wage stagnation and depression). Thankfully, I am not an economist, but I guess that most people will view this as simple exploitation of labour. Whether or not it is a good idea will no doubt depend upon your political and social views. Personally, I cannot think that anyone in their right mind would find unemployment acceptable under any circumstances. Still, we are told that we now live in a post-truth world where anything goes.

Unemployment is supposed to be at its lowest level in the UK for many years, even though many jobs are of fragile status by working within the ‘gig economy’ or zero-hours contracts. In contrast, unemployment in Spain and the Canary Islands is still at worryingly high levels. Unemployment in the Canary Islands remains stubbornly at around 31 per cent, which is one of the highest in Europe. For those under 25 years old, the unemployment rate is at a shocking 56 per cent, accompanied by severe social consequences, as well as destroying dreams and confidence for a generation of young people.

It was encouraging to hear this week that several new and imaginative schemes designed to reverse the trend are currently being deployed in the Canary Islands. The Government of Gran Canaria has recently announced that 220 unemployed people over the age of 45 years and without previous skills will be trained as skilled metal workers in the Port of La Luz in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, which is one of the largest employers on the island. The main employer on the site, Femepa, operates 1,600 companies that have job opportunities for welders and electricians, but often faces difficulties in finding workers to fill these vacant posts.

Cars, lorries and motorcycles regularly need repairs, and in the Canary Islands there are over 4,500 elevators that need to pass a safety inspection each year. This new project will also provide job opportunities for the refurbishment of homes and the maintenance of hotels. 220 people will be invited to participate in training courses to work in the metal sector, and Femepa and the island government hope that all those who complete the training will be offered jobs. These courses are intended for those who have been unemployed for over a year, are over 45 years of age, immigrants, victims of gender violence or have a low level of education.

The Government of Gran Canaria has also announced that it will employ 50 unemployed people to work full time for six months in reforestation tasks. This programme is aimed at women who are victims of gender violence, immigrants and those over the age of 45 years, so that they can learn a trade in a sector in which there is a real demand for professionals with appropriate skills. This specific group of unemployed people will soon learn how to fell trees, climb trees, provide trees with sufficient water and to use specific machinery for forestry tasks.

Both projects are relatively small scale, yet are an attempt to bring hope for the future and an escape for many people who are desperate to break away from the misery of unemployment. In this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world, I wonder what the UK economist who spoke so favourably of the benefits of unemployment would think of these attempts to give people some hope for the future?

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