Clean Energy a ‘Dirty Business’ in Mexico
The windmills stand in rows like an army of Goliaths, steel towers taller than the Statue of Liberty and topped with blades as long as a jetliner's wing.
The blades whoosh through the humid air, carving energy from a wind that rushes across Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec on its journey from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Nearly every day, another tower rises out of the countryside.
The isthmus - Mexico's narrowest point - is becoming the Saudi Arabia of alternative energy as U.S. and European companies, emboldened by new technology and high oil prices, rush to stake their claims in one of the world's windiest places. The Mexican government wants the isthmus to produce 2,500 megawatts within three years, a goal that will require thousands of windmills and would catapult Mexico into the top 12 producers of wind energy.
"This is one of the finest wind areas in the world, and they are being very ambitious about developing it," said Martin Pasqualetti, an expert on renewable energy at Arizona State University who has studied the region. "They're trying to do in five years what California took 35 years to do."
But the energy gold rush has also brought discord, as building crews slice through irrigation canals, divide pastures and cover crops with dust. Some farmers complain they were tricked into renting their land for as little as $46 an acre annually.
Opponents of Mexican President Felipe Calderón fear the generators are the first step toward privatizing Mexico's energy sector. And some residents are angry that the electricity being generated is not going to homes here in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico, but to power Walmart stores, Cemex cement plants and a few other industrial customers in Mexico.
"It has divided neighbors against each other," said Alejo Giron, a communal farmer in La Venta. "If this place has so much possibility, where are the benefits for us?"
The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, 130 miles wide and about 330 miles southeast of Mexico City, lies at the bottom of a funnel formed by two mountain ranges. Wind from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico whistles through this pass on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
In the energy business, an average annual wind of 14.9 mph is good, and 16.3 mph is excellent, according to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The wind near La Venta averages more than 19 mph, the laboratory found. During the winter, gusts are so strong they can flip tractor-trailer trucks.
The Mexican government began mapping the wind for possible wind farms in the 1990s. The projects have gone into high gear since the inauguration of Calderon, a former energy minister who has warned that Mexico is running out of oil and needs to modernize fast. He pushed through legal changes last year allowing more private investment in the state-controlled energy sector.
High oil prices, meanwhile, have made wind energy look like an increasingly good investment.
Windmill technology, too, has improved. Lighter materials mean blades can be longer. Generators have gotten more powerful. A single turbine, such as the 2.5-megawatt Liberty, built by Carpinteria, Calif.-based Clipper Windpower, can power 625 to 700 average U.S. homes. Clipper is installing 27 of them in the isthmus.
Calderon has pledged to have the region producing at least 2,500 megawatts by the time his term ends in 2012. That's enough for as many as 700,000 average U.S. homes.
"With nothing but wind power, without burning a drop of petroleum, we are generating electricity so people can live better, so companies can produce more and generate more jobs, and so that people here can benefit through rent or association with these projects," Calderon said during a recent visit to the isthmus.
Isthmus towns buzz with boomtown excitement. Engineers from Spain, Germany, France and the United States fill the restaurants at lunchtime. The hotels in the town of Juchitan are packed. The one-horse town of La Ventosa - "the windy place," in Spanish - is the site of a government center charged with developing new generations of wind turbines. All day long, a seemingly endless procession of cement trucks winds through the fields toward the growing forests of steel.
One day in 2006, a truck with a loudspeaker showed up in the town of Santa María Xadani.
"It went around saying there was going to be a program to help farmers, and that we should show up the next night for a meeting," said farmer Abel Sanchez.
At the meeting, representatives from Spanish firm Endesa handed out soft drinks and explained that they wanted to rent land for their wind generators, Sanchez said.
It was a complicated deal. The company would pay 1.4 percent of the profit, plus $300 a year for each tower, with the money divided among the hundreds of landowners, a contract obtained by The Arizona Republic shows. Each landowner would get an additional $4.60 an acre annually, and the company would pay $182 per acre of land damaged during construction. There was a signing bonus of $37.
In exchange, property owners would have to get permission from the energy company before selling their land or striking deals for development.
One good cow can produce $90 of milk a month, so most farmers were unimpressed, Sanchez said. But the company representatives made it sound like a government program, he said, and there seemed to be little to lose. Many small landowners signed up even though they couldn't read.
Meanwhile, construction began on other wind parks. Many landowners were shocked at the disruption. To support the huge generators, crews built gravel roads 50 feet across, hammered in pylons and poured 1,200 tons of concrete for each tower. Pads of gravel 100 feet long and 50 feet wide were dumped onto sorghum fields and grazing land to support the cranes.
Farmer Salvador Ordaz now has two roads cutting through his 16 acres of pasture and says part of the land is unusable because of dust and blocked irrigation lines. He has had to cut his herd to 10 cows from 30. "When you think of windmills, you just think of this one tower," Ordaz said. "But it affects a lot more land than that."
Some companies are paying 50 cents to $1 per square yard annually for damages and have promised to remove much of the gravel once construction is complete. But Sanchez and about 180 other farmers in the towns of Xadani, Union Hildago and Juchitán decided they wanted none of it. They sued Endesa and two other Spanish companies, Preneal and Union Fenosa, saying the companies had misled poorly educated landowners and tricked them into signing lopsided deals.
Endesa and Union Fenosa did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Preneal declined to comment.
Pasqualetti said the payments are a fraction of the $3,000 to $5,000 that energy companies pay annually to farmers in Iowa. "The evidence would indicate (Mexican landowners) are not getting what they should be getting," he said.
In October, Preneal relented and canceled its contracts with the dissenting landowners. Endesa and Union Fenosa did the same in March.
"It's clean energy but dirty business," said Claudia Vera, a lawyer at the Tepeyac Human Rights Center who helped the landowners with their case.
Opposition has spread to other towns, sometimes opening up old racial and political feuds.
In San Mateo del Mar, populated by Huave Indians, residents voted to keep out the energy companies, re-igniting territorial disputes with neighboring villages dominated by Zapotec Indians, said local activist Roselia Gutierrez.
In La Venta, proponents and opponents have broken along political party lines, with Institutional Revolutionary Party members supporting the contracts and the more liberal Democratic Revolutionary Party opposing them. On the national level, the Democratic Revolutionary Party has accused Calderon of using the wind farms as a test case for privatizing Mexico's oil and electricity sector.
Demonstrations in La Venta have halted construction six times at the Eurus wind farm, owned by Acciona Energy. Graffiti in the town blasts company officials and members of the local "ejido", or farm cooperative. "Get out, Wilson!" says one. "La Venta belongs to the "ejido" members!" says another.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tehuantepec printed fliers depicting the Spanish companies as invading Spanish galleons. "No to the robbery of our territory! No to the wind power projects!" they say. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated when Calderón came to inaugurate a project in January.
The companies say they've treated landowners fairly, even raising payments as construction nears on new projects.
Acciona, which is installing 167 wind turbines at the Eurus wind farm near La Venta, is paying members of the local farm cooperative about $186 annually per acre for wind use, plus about 80 cents per square yard of "affected land," said cooperative member Jose Cruz Velazquez.
Union Fenosa has promised to share 1 percent of the profit from its wind park in Juchitan, split between all of the landowners, with an additional 0.3 percent going to landowners with towers on their property, a contract shows.
"The truth is, if the people felt that what we're paying wasn't fair, we wouldn't be here," said Eurus project manager Ignacio Querol.
Many residents say they've benefited.
Aquileo Jimenez, 51, has rights to 10 acres of the farm cooperative's land in La Venta. He used his first payment from Acciona to buy an old bus and now has a contract to shuttle workers to the construction sites.
Cruz Velazquez, 45, used his payment to open an auto-parts store. He's doing a brisk business selling brake pads and tires to the dump trucks streaming into the Eurus construction site. Across the road, 76-year-old Matias Lopez Ramos directs truck traffic for $26 a day - good money in Oaxaca.
"It's done good things for us," Cruz Velazquez said. "Even people who were in the United States are coming back here to work because of it."
Others wonder how long the good times will last. Once construction is finished, Acciona has promised to remove the gravel pads and reduce the access roads from 50 feet wide to 20. The land-damage fees it pays will shrink dramatically then.
"People are not thinking about the long term," Giron said. "Those generators will be making millions of dollars for the company, and they will be limiting what you can do with your land for 30, 40 years. Soon, whatever they're paying won't seem like very much money anymore."