Blowin’ in the Wind

By Neal Erickson

The need for renewable energy sources has been high in the collective world consciousness for quite some time. According to some, as Bob Dylan wrote: “The answer is blowin’ in the Wind.”

As you drive toward Chiapas from Oaxaca on highway 190, you enter the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and will pass through some of the biggest wind farms in Latin America. On both sides of the road, at times seeming to stretch out as far as the eye can see, are acres and acres of futuristic-looking electricity-generating windmills. The Isthmus is only approximately 200km wide at it’s narrowest, and separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Also at this point, the Sierra Madre Mountain range flattens out to a plateau before rising to the Sierras of Chiapas, creating a natural funnel for winds from the Gulf to pass through to the Pacific, and vice versa.

Wind power engineers consider 14.9 mph to be a good year round average when considering an area for wind farms, and 16.3 is thought to be excellent. The average wind speed in the area of the Isthmus that is being developed in recent years is more than 19 mph. It is said that in the winter, gusts of wind in this funnel have flipped tractor-trailor trucks.

From 2005 through 2010, the output in wind-generated electricity from this region grew from 3 megawatts to over 500. Construction continues, fueled by a Calderon Administration goal of 2500MW by the end of 2012.

Because of the costs and highly technical nature of these power-generating systems, they are not all owned and operated by one entity. Financing has been arranged by various consortiums and involve investments and commitments by the World Bank, Walmart de Mexico, FEMSA (controlling company of Oxxo and also of Latin America’s largest Coca-Cola bottler), and Dutch brewer Heineken, among others. Windmill technology has been improving steadily, and windmills installed in the Istmus have been ordered from several companies around the world, from California to as far away as Denmark.

There has been disquiet in the communities affected by these wind farms, primarily because locals have been left out of the planning and decisions leading up to the construction. These areas are some of the poorest regions in Mexico, and least served relative to infrastructure. Many outlying communities in the area do not have electric service.

Of course jobs related to the new construction are welcomed. Numerous people have taken the money paid them for land usage and damage, and begun small businesses that serve the new construction activity. Some feel, however, that if more consideration was given to the locals, more could be done beyond that to benefit the area. Some complaints have been filed relating to perceived low compensation levels for landowners, and the disruption to the farms, etc. after projects begin construction. Locals feel some projects were presented in a misleading fashion, taking advantage of the less educated and illiterate.

The main thrust of this rapid growth in wind power generation is of course driven by the fact that Mexico’s petroleum supply is finite, and the government recognizes the need for alternative sources of power generation. Some feel that President Calderon, a former energy minister, has used the wind farms as test cases for privatization of Mexico’s electricity industry, but the fact remains that oil will eventually be in short supply and alternatives are needed. With the high price of oil and the recent advances in wind power technology, the wind farms have proven to be an extremely viable solution.

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