Friday, January 7, 2011
The production of solar and wind energy is booming in Southern California and nearby border states. Utilities are so eager to get into the game that they're reaching into Mexico to meet the demand.
SAN DIEGO Aaron Quintanar is in his green Ford Explorer, driving south from San Diego and east into Tecate, Mexico. The conservationist is headed to one of his favorite places along the border: the Sierra Juarez mountains, a range on the Baja Peninsula.
Quintanar loves this place because it's been largely inaccessible--an oasis of rare plant and animal species. Pumas, coyotes, and mountain sheep roam the forest; eagles soar above the tree lines. It's eerily quiet up here.
"Right now, here where we're standing, you've got this absolutely wonderful mixture of coastal plant species, of desert species, starting to mix in with juniper and mixed pine forest as well as red shank chaparral," says Quintanar looking out into the forest. "It's absolutely breathtaking."
But this place is as windy as it is beautiful. And Quintanar fears the forest may disappear because a major project will harness the site's energy potential. Energia Sierra Juarez hasn't broken ground yet, but once completed, it will mean 550 miles of new roads, transmission lines, and substations.
"Baja California takes tremendous impacts to one of the most important forests in Northern Mexico," adds Quintanar, "and overall the benefits, move to Southern California."
Quintanar has been researching the environmental impacts of the future wind project, and he believes that Energia Sierra Juarez's parent company, Sempra Energy, hasn't taken the necessary measures to preserve this ecosystem. The plan for the wind project contains no detailed routes or description of its size and features; no sense of the impact it would have on local birds; and, no comprehensive log for all the species that would be affected.
On its website, Sempra says that construction for the project will begin this year, after finalizing environmental impact studies both in the U.S. and in Mexico. Scott Crider, Sempra Energy's Director of External Affairs, says that around 50 turbines are expected in the first phase of the project, generating between 100-150 MW. Initially, 100% of the wind energy will be shipped to Southern California. "But in the future, it depends on who wants to buy the power," says Crider. "We haven't announced the power purchasers yet."
To San Diego-based energy consultant Bill Powers, the green energy development expansion into Mexico is problematic. He says this part of northern Mexico is effectively giving away its natural resources to an American energy company.
"We avoid California and U.S. environmental requirements, we avoid labor laws or union agreements," says Powers, referring to the energy deals in Mexico. "It's a dream, it's perfect."
Art Larson is a spokesperson for SDG&E, a subsidiary of Sempra. He sees things differently; to him, the project is a necessary investment in California's green energy future.
"SDG&E was the first utility in the state to opt to get 33 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2020," says Larson. "So that's a goal we intend to honor and meet and you need a lot of renewable power to bring into the area to do that."
Sierra Juarez wind is not the only project in the area. On his way to a nearby village, Quintanar passes six enormous wind turbines. They tower behind him as he stops to chat with a security guard.
Since the late nineties, wind developers have been coming to Northern Mexico, and negotiating with land cooperatives. In 2006, Sempra signed a contract with the villagers of Jacume, a dusty town three miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Villagers are leasing parts of their land to Sempra in exchange for monthly royalties. They were also promised $100,000 once the project is completed.
Jose Mercado owns a convenience store in Jacume, and he says he's eagerly awaiting the new wind project.
"It would really benefit us because we have the hope that it would generate jobs for our community, for our young people, which have nothing better to do in this town," says Mercado, seated outside his store. "We can be drivers, or construction workers, whatever."
Little does Mercado know that Sierra Juarez Energy is likely to face a legal challenge over lax environmental permits in the new year. This could delay Sempra Energy's plans for construction.
"I think they're scrambling to get the permits right now, both from Mexico and from the U.S. I don't know if they're telling us the truth, but they've promised they'll bring the wind turbines soon," says Mercado.
In the meantime, Mercado is receiving about $25 a month from Sempra Energy. It's not much, but it's a promise to future development, he says, something that is in short order in this part of Mexico.