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Firms turn to Baja for harnessing wind

Firms turn to Baja for harnessing wind

Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 1:15 a.m.

David Muñoz, director of the Baja California Energy Commission, heads the state’s renewable energy projects, including the installation of five wind turbines near the border.

John Gibbins / Union-Tribune

David Muñoz, director of the Baja California Energy Commission, heads the state’s renewable energy projects, including the installation of five wind turbines near the border.

David Muñoz, director of the Baja California Energy Commission, heads the state’s renewable energy projects, including the installation of five wind turbines near the border.



LA RUMOROSA, Mexico — This small mountain community near the U.S. border got its name from the sound of wind whispering through rock and pine. Now for the first time, the wind is being transformed into energy as it blows through five giant turbines just outside town.

With its formal launching weeks away, the $26.2 million state-owned project marks the modest start of a major push to turn this sparsely populated area of Baja California into an important center for wind-energy production, both for domestic consumption and for export to the United States.

At least two San Diego County-based companies, Sempra Energy and Cannon Power Group, are planning large projects along the north-south wind corridor that runs along the ridgeline of the Sierra Juarez, a mountainous region between Tecate and Mexicali known for its strong and steady winds.

Proponents say a combination of other factors also makes the region attractive for investors in wind energy: proximity to the California market, lower land and construction costs, and a faster permit process.

“Let them bring hundreds, thousands of turbines,” Baja California Gov. José Guadalupe Osuna Millán said in a recent interview.

Osuna and other wind-energy supporters say the projects will mean economic benefits for Baja California, creating jobs for construction workers and technicians, demand for services and revenue for communal landholding groups, or ejidos, which lease their lands to the power companies. The projects also will help the state decrease its dependence on fossil fuels, which produce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

“We have a surplus of potential,” said David Muñoz, director general of the Baja California Energy Commission and in charge of directing the state’s renewable energy projects. For Baja California, Muñoz said, “there are net gains from private companies developing their own wind projects and exporting power.”

While several private companies are looking at Baja California with an eye to California’s energy market, the state of Baja California’s small wind project is exclusively for domestic use.

When operating at full capacity, the five turbines will provide 80 percent of the public-lighting needs in Mexicali. Savings generated by the project will be distributed among 35,000 poor families in Mexicali, to help them pay electric bills and purchase energy-efficient air conditioners and other appliances.

The plan is to increase the capacity tenfold, using the electricity for public lighting in Baja California’s five municipalities.

The project “puts Baja California at the vanguard of the green movement,” Osuna said. “The world needs to change its sources of energy. We’re seeing the acceleration of climate change.”

Mexico ventured into wind energy last year with two wind farms in the state of Oaxaca: Las Ventas II, operated by Mexico’s Federal Electric Commission; and Eurus, administered by the Spanish company, Acciona. Across from the Texas border, a $340 million wind farm is under construction in the state of Tamaulipas to provide energy to 43 communities for public lighting, water delivery systems, hospitals and public buildings.

For private companies, La Rumorosa’s proximity to the United States makes it an attractive location because of California’s requirement that utilities derive 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by this year ´╗┐and 33 percent by 2020.

The most advanced private project in Baja California is by San Diego-based Sempra Energy, whose planned Energy Sierra Juarez project outside La Rumorosa would generate up to 1,000 megawatts of energy for export to the United States. Next year, the company hopes to begin construction on the first phase, which would generate from 100 to 125 megawatts.

Art Larson, a company spokesman, said Sempra is awaiting permits from Mexico’s Environmental Protection Secretariat and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Also in the works in the same vicinity is a project by Del Mar-based Cannon Power Group. The company has leased 70 square miles in the Sierra Juarez region, where it is planning a 400- to 500-megawatt project, enough to power about 200,000 households.

Gary Hardke, Cannon Power Group’s president, said the project would be built in phases, and initially focus on the Mexico market, “and have a longer-term alternative of exporting into California.”

La Rumorosa “is a very hot up-and-coming area,” Hardke said. Baja California officials have been very supportive, he said, while “California is a very difficult place to develop a project,” because of community opposition, regulations and problems with assembling enough property to make a project financially feasible.

A study by the consulting group Bates White lists La Rumorosa as the area with the second-highest wind energy potential in Mexico. A big hurdle for reaching the California market is transmission capacity.

For the California market, “the Baja California wind resources is actually if not the most attractive, then one of the most economically attractive wind resources,” said Nicolas Puga, the study’s author.

Despite the assertions of state officials, the economic benefits to Mexico “are marginal,” Puga said. “It will create some small opportunities.”

The advantages are for the companies that develop and sell the energy “and not for the community,” said Margarito Quintero Nuñez, an engineering professor at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California in Mexicali. Quintero lamented that foreign companies are the ones moving in to develop wind energy, primarily for export.

Alan Sweedler, director of the Center for Energy Studies at San Diego State University, said the potential for benefits to Baja California is there if Mexican companies begin investing in their own projects.

“I think you have to look at it as an economic development issue,” Sweedler said. “It’s naive to think that Mexicans are unsophisticated business people who are going to get exploited. I can’t see them doing something that’s not in their own interest.”

In San Diego County, a plan for wind farms has generated protests from East County residents, who complain that the farms are a blight on the landscape, and worry about their effect on birds in the Pacific Flyway and other animal life.

So far, the strongest protests against the Baja California plants have come from north of the border.

“If the Sierra Juarez mountains were in the United States, it would all be parkland,” said Bill Powers, chairman of the Border Power Working Group.

Powers is fighting the Sempra wind energy project, saying that the company is using it to justify construction of the much-debated Sunrise Powerlink in San Diego County.

Puga, the energy consultant, said Mexican environmental laws “are as demanding as in the United States,” but the permitting process is quicker because “the public involvement process doesn’t open the door for every Tom, Dick and Harry to come in and complain.”

In Baja California, state officials are gearing up to grab opportunities they say wind energy will bring. The state university is forming a program to develop technicians who can work on wind projects in Mexico and abroad.

Muñoz, the energy commission director, also hopes to see the development of energy transmission and collection systems “that would open investment opportunities to smaller projects.”

“Our goal is to make this possible,” Muñoz said. “We don’t want just one big player in Baja.”

Sandra Dibble: (619) 293-1716; sandra.dibble@uniontrib.com

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Published Sunday, January 17, 2010 6:41 PM by Kanoa Biondolillo


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