Cross(border) winds

California looks to Mexico for renewable energy projects

  • Activist Donna Tisdale has fought waste incinerators and landfills to protect the desert where she lives. Now, one massive project is just out of reach: A wind farm in Baja California.

    (c) Peggy Peattie/Zuma
  • Sempra and a handful of other energy companies are hoping to develop wind power in La Rumorosa in northern Baja California. The area has the second-highest wind potential in Mexico, and is particularly attractive because of its proximity to the California market and the region's hunger for economic development, among other factors.

    Shaun C. Gibson Sources: Nicolas Puga, Zemer-Union Fenosa; National Atlas; Google Maps

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Environmentalists on both sides of the border had hoped that the virtually undeveloped Ejido Jacume -- home to endangered peninsular bighorn sheep -- could become part of the Las Californias Binational Conservation Initiative, linking Bureau of Land Management lands with the Parque Constitución de 1857 in Baja. The plan has already been approved on the American side. "Conservation is a form of economic development, too," says San Diego-based conservationist Aaron Quintanar, who works with ejidos to preserve their lands. "Preserve this land, promote it as a destination for wildlife viewing, and you'll create just as many ecotourism jobs as you will with industrial development." The wind-farm access roads will fragment habitat and invite more development, he says. 

"The government is desperate for foreign investment," Quintanar warns. "The permitting process is practically a rubber stamp."

Indeed, Baja yearns for investment: "Let them bring hundreds, thousands of turbines," Gov. Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan said in a recent San Diego Union-Tribune article.

Energy consultant Nicolas Puga, who wrote a 2008 study on Baja wind potential for energy company Union Fenosa, says concerns over Mexico's environmental review process are overstated. "A line-by-line comparison shows that Mexico's regulations are virtually equal to, or sometimes exceed, those in the United States. The people in charge of enforcing these laws tend to be highly educated and dedicated -- not your typical do-nothing bureaucrats.

"But," he concedes, "in this economic climate, whether they have the budget for enforcement is another matter."

David Munoz, director general of the Comision Estatal de Energia de Baja California, counters that "foreign investment and environmental regulation are not mutually exclusive." Permit fees help cover the cost of enforcing environmental standards, he explains.

But critics are unconvinced, noting that Sempra's environmental impact report for Energia Sierra Juarez neither gives exact locations for turbine placement nor mentions how tall the turbines will be -- both givens for comparable analyses in California. And in Mexico, projects can't be challenged on aesthetic grounds, and public-comment periods occur only if someone files a protest within a very short window of time.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the state's private energy companies, out-of-state projects count towards California's renewable energy standard only if they do not violate the state's environmental rules. However, there are no state or federal mechanisms to physically inspect facilities in Mexico. And Mexican officials look for breaches in their own laws, not California's. Mexico has no equivalent to the Endangered Species Act, for instance.

"How do we know these facilities are up to California standards?" asks prominent Sempra critic and former CPUC president Loretta Lynch, who was on the commission when it ratified the power contract for Sempra's Mexican LNG plant. "We're supposed to take Sempra's word for it."

Baja may be an attractive place to build, but connecting new renewable energy projects to California will require massive new transmission lines. And once these lines reach U.S. soil, they'll have to contend with the same complex federal, state and local regulations -- as well as the inevitable local opposition -- that are obstacles for transmission projects in the U.S.

There is existing transmission capacity, but not enough. A June 2008 report for the California Energy Commission estimated that Mexico has 800 MW open on a line to direct power from Baja into the California grid. In theory, this means the initial phases of Energia Sierra Juarez can be built without new lines.
But Sempra doesn't want to use that line, saying the Mexican state power company's "wheeling fee" -- based on the distance power must travel and necessary upgrades -- would make the power too expensive. Instead, the company proposes a new 500-kilovolt cross-border transmission line and a set of massive electrical substations, subsidized by ratepayers in California.

That line would tie into San Diego Gas and Electric's 500 kV Southwest Powerlink -- which parallels the border from Imperial County to San Diego. But that won't be enough, either: Projects over 80 MW require increased transmission capacity, according to the California Independent System Operator, which oversees transmission issues in state. "For us to import green energy from Mexico," says Sempra spokesman Larson, "we need the new Sunrise Powerlink or its equivalent."

Sunrise is a proposed 150 mile, 500kV transmission line that would run from the Imperial Valley substation to San Diego, cutting through Cleveland National Forest.

Neither new power line project will be easy.

Building international transmission lines into the United States requires a special presidential permit -- only two have been granted in Baja -- and a rigorous environmental study from the U.S. Department of Energy. But that extra scrutiny has its benefits: Once the permit is granted, California law allows power generated in Mexico that connects directly to the California grid to be considered produced in state -- meaning it can count towards the renewable energy standard, maximizing its value to utilities.

Activists like Tisdale believe the new capacity isn't just about renewable energy. They say the lines, which can carry far more power than Energia Sierra Juarez will produce on average, will help Sempra maximize profits from its Costa Azul liquid natural gas terminal in Baja. Sempra has a massive LNG pipeline running through the wind-project area, and is putting the finishing touches on a complementary water pipeline -- essentials for building new LNG plants. Mexico does not require companies to offset particulate matter emissions, meaning Sempra could build LNG plant after LNG plant for the California market without being forced to balance increased emissions with green projects.

That and the fact that Sunrise Powerlink would cost ratepayers $3 billion and run though miles of relatively undisturbed habitat have made it hugely controversial. Though the line has been approved by the CPUC and the BLM, it's currently mired in legal challenges. San Diego County Chairwoman Dianne Jacob recently called for a thorough review, with the possibility of reopening the project's application.

Back on the U.S. side of the border, Tisdale stands underneath the massive high-tension wires of the 500 kV Southwest Powerlink. The loud crackle of electricity makes conversation difficult, and the hum of the energy rattles through our chests.

"I wouldn't wish this on anyone," she says, shaking her head. "I don't want to see our planning failures exported south of the border. And I'm going to do everything I can to stop it from happening."

Matthew Fleischer is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

For more information, please see:

Consultant Nicolas Puga's various analyses of cross-border renewable energy opportunities and obstacles.

California's Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative

San Diego Smart Energy 2020: A plan to circumvent the need for powerlines like the Sunrise Powerlink by installing rooftop photovoltaic panels.


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