wind farm

Wind farms like this one on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico have faced strong community opposition.

L.Hernández/Associated Press

North American energy deal places focus on Mexico

There’s a big geopolitical imbalance in the new clean energy agreement reached this week by the presidents of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Although Canada already far exceeds the trilateral pledge to generate half of North America’s electricity from non–carbon-based sources by 2025 and the United States has a clear path forward, Mexico faces major hurdles. Experts say that new laws will improve its chances of holding up its end of the agreement. But the Mexican government also needs to tighten enforcement of those laws and resolve conflicts over building renewable energy projects on indigenous land.

The three countries signing the new agreement now generate 37% of their electricity from clean power sources, with Canada at 75% thanks to abundant hydropower and the United States at 33%, more than half of which comes from nuclear power plants. (The United States also consumes more than 80% of the total amount of electricity used by the continent’s 500 million residents.)

Mexico trails the pack with only 22% of its electricity from non–fossil fuels, and the two reactors at its only nuclear power plant generate just 4% of the country’s electricity. Although the government is planning to build several new nuclear plants, most of the immediate action will likely be focused on renewables like solar and wind, experts say.

 “It’s good to have such an ambitious goal,” says Juan Bezaury-Creel in Mexico City, an expert on Mexican policy at The Nature Conservancy. “I think it’s doable.”  

Mexico had already pledged that 35% of its electricity would come from clean sources by 2024, as part of a climate change law passed in 2012. And the new continent-wide commitment comes shortly after the Mexican government completed a controversial energy reform that opened up the nationalized oil industry to foreign investments. The reform will make regulating the energy sector more complex. “You used to have two actors, Pemex [the state oil company] and the Federal Electricity Commission [CFE]. Now, you’re going to have a multitude of actors,” Bezaury-Creel says. “Enforcement is going to have to be upgraded.”

Some of those new actors are likely to be smaller, decentralized renewable energy providers that will provide some welcome competition for CFE, says Marcela López-Vallejo, a political scientist at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, an economics research center in Mexico City. Last December Congress required that companies in Mexico obtain a minimum threshold of their energy from clean sources (the exact amount hasn’t yet been defined). In order to exceed its allotment of fossil fuel energy, a company has to buy “clean energy certificates” from the government, which will invest that money in developing additional clean energy projects. In practice, it’s similar to a carbon cap-and-trade system, López-Vallejo says. “With this law at least we have the legal framework and the incentives in place to [meet clean energy goals].”

Gustavo Alanís-Ortega, president of the Mexican Center for Environmental Rights in Mexico City, supports the new law but worries about enforcement. “We’re a country that is always ratifying international treaties and legislating national laws, but then the implementation is very poor.”

As part of the North America pact, Mexico also pledged to cut methane emissions from its oil and gas industry by 40% to 45% by 2025. “I see that one as a bit harder” to achieve, López-Vallejo says. “Our oil industry is pretty dirty … I think that one is going to depend on the support, whether it be financial or technological, of the North American partners.” The government says its energy reforms will make that kind of foreign investment easier.

Hydropower now makes up 70% of renewable energy in Mexico, with wind at only 15%. But last year the government committed to tripling the country’s wind energy capacity to 9.8 gigawatts by 2018. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico—the thin strip of land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—is one of the windiest places in the world and already hosts about 1600 turbines, generating 90% of the country’s output. The majority of future wind development is planned for this region, but several ambitious projects there have been delayed or canceled by conflicts with indigenous communities over land rights.

“The problem isn’t that they don’t want wind power. The problem is that they are not consulted,” says Alanís-Ortega, whose organization has supported the communities’ challenges. “They feel invaded, marginalized, and exploited. No one is taking them into account.”

Most wind development projects in Oaxaca are led by Spanish companies, and residents have complained that they have been misled into signing over their land rights for rock-bottom rates with little or no profit-sharing. Some farmers say they were shocked by the size of the wind turbines and the fact that they couldn’t plant crops near them.

Conflict continues to roil Eólica del Sur, which would be the largest wind project in Latin America with 132 turbines generating 396 megawatts. The same investors and developers had previously planned a similar wind park in a different part of the isthmus under the name Mareña Renovables. That project was canceled because of community opposition. Late last year the indigenous community of Juchitán de Zaragoza sued to halt the new Eólica del Sur project, saying they had not been adequately consulted. On 9 June, a judge ruled against the community and allowed the project to continue.