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Baja Wind Energy Project Could Help Fill California’s Sails

June 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As President Barack Obama stresses the need for independence from fossil fuels, filmmaker Emma Cott examines one alternative energy project that is looking to harness wind power from Mexico to help meet California's energy demands.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the things President Obama called for in his speech was an end to the country’s addiction to fossil fuels.

We have a report on the complexities involved in achieving just one part of that goal. It comes from the West Coast, where a project is trying to harness wind power from Mexico to meet the demand for energy in California.

Our story is reported by independent filmmaker Emma Cott and was supported by a grant from the University of California, Berkeley, Journalism School.

EMMA COTT, independent filmmaker: Here in Baja, just south of California’s border with Mexico, the land is so dry, it can’t be farmed. There’s no work either.

Small-town life depends on cash wired by relatives who have slipped across the border. But the area’s fortune could be changing. As it turns out, this dusty town has something that California desperately needs: wind.

Baja’s first small wind farm will be for use within Mexico, but David Munoz, the director of Baja’s Energy Commission, envisions an international green energy future for his state.

DAVID MUNOZ, director, Baja State Energy Commission: Exporting wind is our next export or renewable power in general. We have an excess of potential, and we have a huge market on the American side.

EMMA COTT: Baja and California have traded power generated from fossil fuels for decades. So, sharing wind seems like the next logical step, especially since California has set a goal that utilities must get one-third of their power from renewable sources by the year 2020.

Michael Folloni is one of a dozen California developers with an eye on Baja.

MICHAEL FOLLONI, California wind developer: Developers are flocking to Baja California because it’s the Saudi Arabia of wind. In California, where we’re pioneers in wind energy, we’re pretty much out of land that is windy enough and developable enough, due to environmental constraints. Just across the border is a phenomenal wind power resource that is concentrated.

EMMA COTT: Experts estimate that Baja has enough wind energy potential to power more than two million California homes.

But it comes at a price. This windy mecca, which is colored hot pink on Folloni’s map, runs right through a pristine mountain range, the Sierra de Juarez. Despite years of effort by conservationists, the vast majority of this wilderness is not protected.

Instead, it is owned by land cooperatives, called ejidos in Spanish. And, in 2006, three of the largest ones signed 30-year land leases with Sempra, the San Diego-based Fortune 500 energy company.

Sempra plans to use the land for a 1,000-megawatt wind farm. It would span a quarter of the state of Baja and feed power to California. The first windmills would go up in Ejido Jacume, 70 miles east of San Diego.

Participating landowners say they are getting $2,000 a month, and more will come once the turbines start spinning. Residents are thrilled.

LOURDES VASQUEZ, resident of Ejido Jacume (through translator): It will help the community grow. Maybe they will build more schools and make us a border crossing here, which we really need, lots of things, but work for our husbands first and foremost, right, work for women and men.

JOSE MERCADO, resident of Ejido Jacume (through translator): Sure, it will affect the natural environment. But, as Mexicans say, money is what makes the world turn. For money, we will pretty much sell our souls.

EMMA COTT: Claudia Leyva, an environmental science professor at the University of Baja California, says she sympathizes with the impoverished residents, but she worries about Sempra’s plans. She recently gave her student a real-world assignment: to evaluate Sempra’s environmental impact report, which is currently under review by Mexico’s environmental agency.

CLAUDIA LEYVA, environmental science professor, University of Baja California (through translator): They began to review the document, and the principal thing they found were some omissions. It really got our attention that this is supposedly a project with 1,000 turbines, but, when they described the project, they had only geographically pinpointed 50.

EMMA COTT: The location of transmission lines, substations and up to 500 miles of new roads are also ill-defined in the reports, says Leyva.

CLAUDIA LEYVA (through translator): If the authority approves such an open-ended proposal, it would really make us worry.

EMMA COTT: The company declined a request for an interview, but a spokesman wrote in an e-mail: “This project is consistent with Sempra’s commitment to meeting energy needs in an environmentally responsible manner and is in response to the demand for clean renewable energy. This project has been well-received by Mexican officials. Many local Mexican regulations were not designed for renewable energy development. And we are working with the appropriate Mexican agencies to resolve these issues.”

EMMA COTT: Mexico’s environmental authority, Semarnat, will be careful in evaluating the process, according to Luis Alfonso Torres.

LUIS ALFONSO TORRES, Semarnat (through translator): I think that, in general, Semarnat welcomes all clean energy projects. That doesn’t mean we are going to approve everything with our eyes shut. We also have to evaluate the implications. If they destroy 25 acres, I can assure you that, with the environmental tax we charge, we will reforest 75 acres.

EMMA COTT: If Sempra’s project is approved, it could break ground next year.

Even if all the environmental and financial hurdles in Mexico are overcome, the next step will be to build the necessary transmission lines in California to carry all this new power. And that could cost the state an estimated $115 billion over the next 10 years.