Mexico to Replace Oil Power Plant With Latin America's Largest Solar Farm
By Ari Phillips
Last week President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Mexico for what’s traditionally called the “Three Amigos” meeting. In the daylong rendezvous, energy issues were slated to play a major role, with Obama and Harper jockeying for room when it comes to the impending decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would bring dirty crude oil down from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
However, Mexico also has some major energy changes in the pipeline, and after decades of state-run oil company PEMEX having sole purview over fossil fuel extraction, international investment and companies will now be let into the mix after recent constitutional reforms. This will increase oil flows from America’s southern neighbor into those same Gulf refineries as Keystone XL might. At the same time renewable energy has started to take off in Mexico, with construction of the biggest solar power plant in Latin America, Aura Solar I—a 30-megawatt solar farm in La Paz, Mexico—the latest signal.
If Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s recent summit with North American leaders is an indication of the significance of the trio’s relationship, then his expected upcoming visit to the Aura I solar farm can be seen as a benchmark on the country’s path to a more renewable future. Mexico is poised to be Latin America’s solar hotbed according to Greentech Media, with the solar market’s installed base expected to quadruple from 60 megawatts to 240 megawatts by the end of this year. Mexico’s energy ministry has set a target for 35 percent of power generation to come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2024.
“The current reform provides a real opportunity, particularly in the electricity reform, to increase investment in renewable energy generation in Mexico by opening up the sector and making other institutional changes,” Christina McCain, Senior Manager for the Latin American Climate Initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund, told ClimateProgress in an email. “Some in Mexico have criticized that the energy reform is missing an opportunity to provide more direct incentives to renewable energy. While the focus of the reform seems to have largely been on the major overhauls we hear most about, there is still opportunity to provide more direct incentives to renewables, as well as leverage existing laws designed to increase renewable sources in Mexico’s energy mix.”
In La Paz, where pollution from a dirty thermoelectric plant creates noxious air impacting resident’s lifestyles and well being, the solar plant is a welcomed clean development. The $100 million project, which includes 132,000 solar panel-modules, is the first Mexican private enterprise of such a size to get a development bank loan and an agreement to sell its electricity to the grid. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank, gave the project a $25 million credit line and also helped set up another $50 million in loans from the Mexican development bank Nacional Financiera (Nafin).
“The idea is to see how this type of merchant-risk deal can be replicated down the road, not only in Mexico and Latin America, but around the world,” Hector Olea, president and CEO of Gauss Energía, the construction contractor for the project, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Merchant power plants are those that are financed by investors and sell power into competitive wholesale markets, as opposed to rate-based power plants that pay for themselves via long-term utility bills or Purchase Power Agreements (PPAs) in which a contract locks in certain fees over a period of time. Merchant solar markets, where the price of electricity is indexed to spot energy markets in some fashion, are in an especially good position in Latin American.
According to Greentech Media, two numbers explain why the Aura Solar I project in Mexico is going ahead as a merchant solar project. “First, 7.5 [kilowatt hours per day] is how much insolation that Baja California Sur receives:”
“This is about three times the average levels in Germany and 50 percent higher than southern California. Higher insolation levels translate to higher output for the power plant—in this case, a capacity factor of about 31 percent.
"Second, $230 per megawatt hours (MWh) is the average price of electricity in 2013 at the La Paz node in Baja California Sur, where the Aura I project is connecting. During peak hours in peak months, rates can be as high as $380 per MWh. Given the insolation levels, that puts the back-of-the-envelope gross revenue from the plant between $13 million to $14 million in year one."
In countries like Germany, Japan, China, and the U.S., substantial subsidies have boosted solar growth, but in Mexico, merchant solar offers an opportunity for these projects to excel with less use of government coffers. Solar is easy to dispatch, or to non-dispatch, because it has no fuel costs. Peak hours of sun coincide with peak hours of electricity use, aligning it well with the spot market. And the risk of rising fossil fuel prices due to demand or regulation means that solar is likely to get more economically appealing as time goes on. Electricity in Mexico costs 25 percent more than the U.S. average, and annual electricity demand is expected to increase four percent over the next 15 years.
“There has to be people willing to finance solar projects that don’t have a guaranteed price for electricity,” said Adam James, author of Greentech Media Research’s Latin America PV Playbook, about the potential for merchant solar growth in Latin America. “It’s taken a while for people in the finance community to be willing to invest in projects.”
Mexico’s constitutional changes will usher in major reforms in the electricity sector by creating a wholesale power market allowing private companies to compete with the state-owned utility. James says the impact this will have on renewable is still unclear.
“A lot of the reform will boil down to implementation,” he said. “If retail rates are no longer subsidized, then solar might become even more competitive because a larger part of the customer base will have to pay higher rates for electricity. The competitive wholesale market will at least open up for opportunity for solar developers to enter the electricity market.”
In April 2012, Mexico’s former president Felipe Calderon passed the General Law on Climate Change, which calls for a 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and a 50-percent reduction by 2050. McCain sees both challenges and promise in Mexico’s efforts to balance the economic potential of its fossil fuel reserves with its climate goals and established leadership in the area, having also hosted the 2010 COP 16 United Nations climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico.
“As the world aspires to transition toward low-carbon economies that are no longer dependent on the fossil fuel reserves so keenly eyed in Mexico, there is significantly under-appreciated opportunity,” McCain said. “Mexico can reduce the environmental impact of old, dirty sources of energy, while taking the long view and building a sustainable future economy.”
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
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