Mexican Wind Power for US Homes?

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San Diego's electric utility wants to build a big windfarm across the border near Tijuana. Mexican conservationists are worried about impacts from a project that wouldn't benefit the area. Ilsa Setziol reports.

MARCO WERMAN: Opponents of what would be the first off shore wind power project in the U.S. are vowing to take their fight to court. This after yesterday's approval of the project by the federal government. The wind farm would be located five miles off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Supporters say it would be a big step forward for clean power and energy independence. But opponents argue that area is the wrong place for a big wind farm. Of course siting a wind power project just about anywhere in the U.S. can be a tough sell. That's one reason some U.S. power companies are looking outside the country. One project on the drawing boards is a massive wind far in the Mexican desert, just south of the U.S. border. Ilsa Setziol of KPCC in Los Angeles has our report.

ILSA SETZIOL: The small town of La Rumorosa, Mexico takes its name from the near constant murmur of wind that sweeps through this part of Baja California. A few years ago the regional government decided to start putting that wind to work. It built five wind turbines to help light the nearby city of Mexicali. Now thousands more windmills could follow. Energy experts says there is enough wind potential in this region to power about two and a half million homes in southern California. And that's got American energy companies thinking big.

MIKE ALLMAN: When we looked at wind, you look at where the best resource is. And in our region it's the Sierra Juarez mountain range.

SETZIOL: Mike Allman is President of southern California's Sempra Generation. It's one of at least three U.S. companies that are proposing wind projects in and around the Sierra Juarez.

ALLMAN: The area where we're going to build this wind project is very close to the transmission lines that run right on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, so that makes it an easy place to connect into the grid.

SETZIOL: It might also be easier than building a wind farm across the border in the U.S. itself. California is hungry for green power, but projects there can run into a buzz saw of opposition. Standing in a valley in the Sierra Juarez on the other hand, it's easy to see the area as Mike Allman describes it, a lot of nothing. You can go for miles here without hearing more than the tinkering of a few goat bells with the shushing of wind in the California Junipers and Jeffrey Pines. But the quiet is deceiving. Claudia Leyva is an ecologist with the Autonomous University of Baja California. Leyva says the Sierra is one of the most important forests in Mexico. The region is home to mountain lions, endangered big horn sheep, and arroyo toads, golden eagles and rare Sierra Juarez pinions. Leyva says the new wind farms will require hundreds of kilometers of roads to be built or upgraded. The roads will be barriers for native animals and plants, Leyva says. She says they'll also open up the area to invasive species. We are going to sacrifice a whole natural system, Leyva says, to provide so-called green energy. Mexican environmental attorney Carla Garcia Zendejas shares Leyva's concern. She says the landscape of Baja is already absorbing the impact of American energy consumption.

CARLA GARCIA ZENDEJAS: There are power plants built in Mexicali, there are natural gas pipelines that were built through Tecate, we have a liquefied natural gas plant that destroyed a habitat there, and none of this is being used for Mexico's benefit.

SETZIOL: But that doesn't concern many officials here in Mexico.

DAVID MUNOZ ANDRADE: It would be, in my opinion, morally wrong if we are selfish about our wind potential because global warming is global.

SETZIOL: David Munoz Andrade is head of the Baja State Energy Commission.

MUNOZ ANDRADE: Since this area is so windy and the resource is so rich, the environmental impact per kilowatt hour here is much less than in other places in the States, for example.

SETZIOL: Munoz says the region's wind could generate more electricity than local people could use. The wind farms would also bring jobs to a region with few of them. Outhouses are more common than indoor plumbing in the village of Jacume. People here survive on a bit of ranching, occasional construction jobs, and the income from a few cell towers. Now the cooperative that owns much of the land here has leased some of it to build turbines. It looks good for me says Jesus Rodriguez, a middle aged man with firm cheeks and a soft belly. He says the project is already providing a small sources of new income here. But others aren't so pleased. In a tiny store down the street, owner Jose Mercado has the look of the local terrain, shrubby hair, weathered skin and sky blue eyes. Families here won't get ahead, Mercado says, because now they've lost the use of their land. We've dedicated ourselves to the minimum wage the company is paying us, he says, just to serve you in the U.S. Mexico's Environmental Protection Agency is expected to complete its review of the proposed wind farm this spring. But the project will also have to meet California's environmental standards. Backers see that as a guarantee of the project's environmental sensitivity. For opponents, it's another shot at scuttling the project. For The World, I'm Ilsa Setziol, La Rumorosa, Mexico.