« Return to this article

Know the West

Cross(border) winds

California looks to Mexico for renewable energy projects


The gusty-wind warning signs on Old Highway 80 in the desert near Jacumba, Calif., aren't lying. On this rainy December day, blasts of air push Donna Tisdale's SUV all over the two-lane, which hugs the Mexican border in eastern San Diego County. Visibility is poor, but the blue-eyed, quietly intense Tisdale is unfazed. Head of the advocacy group Backcountry Against the Dump, secretary of the Protect Our Communities Foundation and chair of her rural town's planning board, she points out projects that she either helped defeat, or is currently protesting -- an industrial waste incinerator here, electrical substations there.

Tisdale doesn't just oppose obvious environmental nasties. She and other activists are also fighting renewable energy projects slated for the Southern California desert -- a 200-megawatt wind farm in the McCain Valley, a 750 MW solar thermal array proposed for nearby Imperial County. "Some folks call me a NIMBY," she says. "(But) I'm protecting my community. Rural towns always take the brunt of these massive industrial projects. … We're tired of it." Besides, she adds, California cities have plenty of untapped solar potential on their own roofs.

Tisdale's a formidable opponent: Just about every development she's challenged has been struck down or mired in litigation. One project, however, is just out of reach.

Tisdale points to a spine of high, rounded bluffs on the Mexico side of the border fence. "That's where it's going to be," she says: Energia Sierra Juarez, a proposed wind farm that will host hundreds of 2.5 MW turbines, each hundreds of feet tall. It's the work of Sempra, parent corporation to San Diego Gas & Electric. At full capacity, it would generate 1,250 MW of power -- roughly half San Diego's average daily use -- exclusively for the U.S. If permitting in Mexico goes smoothly, Sempra expects to break ground in 2011, with the first 100-125 MW phase completed in 2012.

"We're optimistic," says Sempra spokesman Art Larson. "There is an increasing demand for renewable energy in California, and this is a location with tremendous wind potential."

There's likely more to it than wind quality, however. With its lower labor and land costs, hunger for economic development, shorter permitting times and protest windows and tax incentives for renewable energy, including projects that export power, Mexico offers an attractive alternative to protracted battles with folks like Donna Tisdale. Indeed, with utilities struggling to meet California's goal of generating 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources this year and 33 percent by 2030, Sempra's not the only company looking south of the border: At least three other foreign and U.S. companies have proposed exporting wind power from Baja to California.

Whether a wave of development follows, however, may depend on what happens with Energia Sierra Juarez.

Generating power
in Mexico for American use isn't unprecedented. Energy giant Intergen has operated a 1,065 MW liquid natural gas (LNG) plant near Mexicali since 2003, with more than half the power exported to California. Sempra operates a 600 MW LNG plant nearby entirely for California. "It took only six months to license the plant," Sempra Energy Group chairman Don Felsinger said in 2002. "In California, it would have taken two years." Indeed, projects perceived as environmentally unfriendly or unsightly often meet fierce backlash in the state, even as its power needs grow. In 2006, local (and star-studded) opposition scuttled a proposal for an LNG terminal 14 miles off the coast of Malibu.

If it's built on schedule, Energia Sierra Juarez will be the first renewable project in Mexico to generate power for the American grid. Experts believe there could be upwards of 10,000 MW of untapped wind potential in Baja California alone. Other sites could be candidates for solar arrays. And northern Baja's ejidos -- community land cooperatives, collectively owned by small groups of Mexican citizens -- are clamoring for such projects.

According to its members, the 25,000-acre, 72-member Ejido Jacume, where Sempra plans to build Energia Sierra Juarez, will receive an up-front payment of $50,000 from the company, plus $10,000 yearly as long as the farm operates. The poor neighboring border town of Jacume, Mex., population 500, won't get power, but Sempra has promised hundreds of temporary jobs and a few dozen permanent maintenance and security jobs.

Ejido member Jose Mercado rubs a gnarled hand over his stubbly cheek as he leans in the doorway of his small Jacume market. He doesn't trust Sempra, he says in Spanish, but "sixty percent of our town is working in the U.S., sending money back here. If this is successful, maybe our families can come back home and work here." Mercado is also hoping for a cut of the power profits, but no deal has been reached.

There is more land available in Mexico, and negotiating with cooperatives is easier for companies than negotiating with numerous separate landowners. A similar arrangement on private land in the U.S. would also probably be far more expensive: A single turbine can net a landowner $4,000 for every megawatt per year once electricity is flowing, and that's on top of various up-front payments.

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.