ORANJESTAD, ARUBA -It’s fitting that this island community’s electricity and water plants are next door to one another. Pipes bring seawater into an oil-fired generating station where it’s boiled and converted to steam to run electrical turbines. Cooled, re-liquefied without its salt content and then filtered through coral sand, the steam becomes fresh water that’s piped to 30,000 paying customers including families, businesses, casinos and hotels all over a 20-mile-long island. It’s no exaggeration to state that Aruba today wouldn’t exist without its ample supply of fresh water. It’s also true that this same water is some of the world’s most expensive.

As a Caribbean island, Aruba doesn’t fit the picture most of us are used to. It’s dry-a desert, literally-and the coconut palms that wave along the beachfronts all came from somewhere else. Hike or drive half a mile from the developed shore and you’ll find cactus, dry soil, lots of lizards and various plants designed to survive on hot sun and little else.

To the Dutch and others who explored this part of the “Indies” in the 16th century, Aruba must have seemed a hard place. Still, the Dutch planted a colony here (one governor for a time was Peter Stuyvesant, who moved on to Manhattan and greater fame) and applied a veneer of their culture. Today, Dutch is still the official language and the island, although independent, is part of the Netherlands Antilles along with Curacao and Bonaire.

Fresh water, and how to get it, is a big story here.  Aruba has been converting salt water to fresh for more than 80 years, beginning with a plant built back in the 1930s. For decades, the process has depended heavily on fossil fuels to create steam for the cogeneration that makes both electricity and fresh water.

And for a long time, using all that diesel wasn’t a matter of great concern-Aruba’s only a few miles off the coast of Venezuela, which produces plenty of oil, and it was for many years the site of a large refinery, located not far from the electrical generating station and the desalinization plant. As long as the fuel was reliably available and not too pricey, it made sense to use it to make fresh water. If you think about it, Aruba’s longtime mindset wasn’t all that different from that of the United States and the rest of the industrialized world. With a population of something over 100,000, Aruba has 80,000 cars-where transportation is concerned at least, it’s not a bastion of alternative approaches.

Circumstances change; sources of energy that once made sense no longer do. It took a while (and a political scandal) to drag Aruba’s officialdom into new thinking, but today the island is moving rapidly toward a new energy system. Ten new wind turbines have been erected and put into operation during the past year; ten more are planned for the next few years. If there have been objections from a community not accustomed to this sort of development, they have been muted-partly, one suspects, due to the decision to locate the wind farm in a fairly remote part of the island, far from the tourist hotels and the major town. The turbines’ nearest neighbors appear to be the inmates in the island’s jail.  And as Dutch citizens, Arubans may have a more accepting, European way of looking at these things than Americans insisting on their rights over everyone else’s, including the right to waste the world’s finite supplies of oil.

The advantages of Aruba’s wind project should be obvious. Trade winds of 15 knots or more blow over the island for most of the year, making the hot sun and near-equatorial temperatures bearable for the most part, while providing the means to spin a blade, move a turbine, make electricity-and produce fresh water for a parched island in an out-of-the-way place. And all at a cost that’s far more reasonable than doing the same job with oil.

The planned 20 turbines are expected to produce 18 percent of the island’s electricity. “Why not 80 percent?” asked one commenter on an island Web site, suggesting that an even bigger commitment could make it possible to replace the island’s current gasoline-powered fleet with electric vehicles. The possibilities, clearly, are vast.

Meanwhile the Arubans have made the most of their supply of fresh water, even if it has been expensive up to now: twelve years ago a German brewmaster designed the Balashi brewery, which was built-not surprisingly-near the desalinization plant. Today it turns out a tasty product, sold widely on Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire: “Made from imported Scottish malts, Bavarian hops and the pure island water,” says the company’s Web site. No exports so far, but one can hope.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.