Mexico eyes next export: Wind energy

Baja California's Energy Commission Director David Munoz Andrade says the Mexican state has enough wind to supply millions of homes in California with clean electricity.

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Kai Ryssdal: Negotiators are trying to figure out what is exactly going to get done at next month's climate-change meeting in Copenhagen. The global economy, though, waits for no one. And a lot of countries have already started trying to capitalize on their green industries. That has been the subject of our series "The Climate Race" this week. Today, how Mexico is trying to build its low-carbon economy. Sam Eaton reports now from Baja.


SAM EATON: The tiny Mexican border town, La Rumorosa, got its name from the sound the wind makes as it whips across the area's rock-strewn ridges. But today La Rumorosa's centuries-old name is taking on new meaning.

That's the sound of 300-foot tall wind turbines the Baja government just installed here. Their giant, spinning blades are the first to tap into what's considered the most consistent winds in all of North America.

And if David Munoz with Baja California's Energy Commission has his way, these five turbines are only the beginning.

DAVID MUNOZ: What this project means is that the state government is putting an example to take a look at Baja California and see that the wind does really blow and there's a huge potential to grasp that resource and turn it into something productive.

And something profitable. The electricity from these turbines will be used in Baja's capital city, Mexicali. But Munoz says that's only a fraction of what's possible. Experts say there's enough wind here to power millions of homes.

MUNOZ: Here in Baja California we have a surplus of renewable energy potential, and we can't consume all that power.

Just to the north, however, California, can't get enough. It's experiencing a shortage as it tries to get 20 percent of its electricity from sources other than natural gas and coal. Munoz says Mexico would be happy to fill that gap and earn a profit doing it. It just needs the capital to make it happen.

MUNOZ: If we really want to make these big projects and displace a huge amounts of greenhouse gases and produce a lot of energy and so on and so forth, what we need is private players who come in and share the risk and share the investment.

And help Mexico get a foothold in a new global economy that's less dependent on fossil fuels. Today oil accounts for nearly half of the Mexican government's annual revenues. And an increasing number of politicians here see that as a vulnerability.

One of them is Baja's Governor Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan.

JOSE GUADALUPE OSUNA MILLAN: The key is diversification. We see less-developed countries can not only gain extraordinary benefits economically, but also with regard to sustainability.

Multinational energy companies also see a chance to profit in Mexico. Several, including U.S.-based Sempra Energy and Spain's Union Fenosa, have already gotten permits to develop huge wind farms near La Rumorosa.

Tom Houston is a lawyer who puts these kinds of deals together. And he says they offer a sort of test case for how rich and poor nations can collaborate.

TOM HOUSTON: In working out the issues on how you get wind power from Mexico into California, you're working out on a micro scale what has to be worked out world wide on a macro scale.

One of the major sticking points holding up a new international climate treaty is whether rich countries should pay poor ones to fight the global warming they essentially caused by burning oil and coal. And if so how would it be done? One option is to create a new global climate fund. But Houston says in countries like Mexico, where corruption is rampant, that could be a disaster.

HOUSTON: Government funding does not work. Period. There's a disappearance of money. For whatever reason it never ends up getting spent on the project it's supposed to be spent on.

Houston says direct foreign investment, on the other hand, yields far greater results, much faster. And there's a good reason for that.

Al Sweedler directs the Center for Energy Studies at San Diego State University.

AL SWEEDLER: The bottom line is it has to be driven by self interests. Unless people think there's something in it for them, they can say all the nice words but nothing's going to happen. And what we've learned here is that it's a benefit for us to have this energy relationship with Mexico. And it's a benefit for them.

Especially for Baja, which is struggling with drought and high unemployment.

Last week in Tecate, Mexico, Sempra Energy held a public hearing on a proposed wind farm north of La Rumorosa. Once completed it could supply enough energy to power more than 300,000 homes in the U.S. And create hundreds of Mexican jobs. According to a group of local ranchers gathered outside, that foreign investment is critical.

Fifty-six-year-old Tezoc Dukes has raised cattle in the nearby Sierra de Juarez Mountains his entire life. But he says in the last few years the annual rains they've depended on for generations have stopped coming.

TEZOC DUKES: It's very serious. Before in the Sierra de Juarez we used to have maybe 10,000 cows, and now there aren't even 500. Our way of life is ending. A lot of people have had to go into town to work. The ranches are being abandoned.

Sempra is offering to pay local ranchers $500 a month to put dozens of turbines on their land. Dukes' neighbor Orsilio Gandolfi Altamirano says it's no fortune, but it's enough to keep them in business.

ORSILIO GANDOLFI ALTAMIRANO: The Americans are the rich business partners. We're the poor ones. But we need them. It's about time the two regions were united. We have the things they don't have. But they have the money, they've always had the money. The bastards.

Altamirano says a border fence may divide Baja from the United States, but when it comes to climate change, political boundaries no longer matter.

In Baja, Mexico, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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