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Mexican wind farm sending power to U.S. comes under fire

A historic wind farm began sending electricity to San Diego from Mexico this year. For the small rural community leasing the land, it offers a financial boon. But the entire project is being challenged in court, due to claims that it violates U.S. and California state environmental laws. Special correspondent Jean Guerrero from KPBS Fronteras reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    As world leaders focus on climate change this week, we look to the sky and a first-of-its-kind partnership to deliver renewable energy across borders.

    Jean Guerrero of local station KPBS has the story from San Diego.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    Sixty-two-year-old Jose Mercado runs a grocery store near the center of the Jacume, a small rural town just south of the U.S.-Mexican border.

    He’s part of a commune leasing land to the first cross-border wind energy project, Energia Sierra Juarez. Operated by Sempra Energy affiliates, the wind farm started sending electricity across the border this summer.

  • JOSE MERCADO, Jacume Resident (through interpreter):

    We lease the land to the company, right? And the company put the turbines, giving us a percentage of their profits.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    Mercado says each person in the commune gets about $2,000 a month from the wind farm. That’s huge for Jacume, where the main source of income had been livestock.

  • JOSE MERCADO (through interpreter):

    The land wasn’t apt for plantings or even construction, because it’s all just rock. The wind farm gives us money to survive without having to work. That’s what we want, not to have to work.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    A hundred percent of the electricity is sold to San Diego Gas & Electric through a cross-border transmission line. The project is part of a statewide scramble for renewable energy. California must get half of its electricity from renewables by 2030.

    To help achieve that goal, Energia Sierra Juarez plans to expand its production capacity by close to 700 percent, building hundreds of additional turbines on the mountain range. But the entire project is being challenged in court.

    Mark Ostrander lives in Jacumba Hot Springs, footsteps from the border fence. He lives completely off the grid, with solar panels and a vertical axis wind turbine he installed.

  • MARK OSTRANDER, Jacumba Hot Springs:

    I don’t pay a utility bill at this point because I have solar and wind. I’m trying to do my part to reduce my carbon footprint.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    So it may seem unusual that Ostrander is part of the federal lawsuit against the historic wind farm just across the border. Ostrander can see the turbines from his property, and he’s concerned about fire. He’s a retired battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

  • MARK OSTRANDER:

    My main forte was in wildland firefighting.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    He says the industrial scale of Energia Sierra Juarez makes it a fire threat, especially during drought. It includes 47 turbines, a nearly five-mile cross-border transmission line and 25 miles of new roads.

  • DONNA TISDALE, Boulevard Resident:

    All these agencies and companies are kind of in lockstep on this green energy rush, whether it’s actually beneficial to us or not.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    That’s Donna Tisdale, who lives northwest of Ostrander in Boulevard. She’s leading the lawsuit against Energia Sierra Juarez and the U.S. government agencies that approved the project. The lawsuit claims the project violates U.S. and California environmental laws that protect the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep, golden eagles and other wildlife on the mountain range.

    The range straddles the border, and environmentalists say that even though the turbines are located on the Mexican side, environmental impacts have spread to the U.S. side as well because the two habitats are interconnected and interdependent. Defendants counter that the project is completely legal because it was approved by Mexico’s national environmental agency, whose representative in Baja is Alfonso Blancafort.

  • ALFONSO BLANCAFORT, Mexico Environmental Agency (through interpreter):

    It not only meets the environmental impact requirements. It also deals with climate change and global warming problems.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    Blancafort says Mexico is benefiting from the project, even though it’s not getting any of the electricity.

  • ALFONSO BLANCAFORT (through interpreter):

    Here, we have the perception of being a region. If we have a wind farm that generates electricity with a low impact on the environment and lower emissions to the atmosphere, this whole region benefits.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    The U.S. Department of Energy didn’t respond to requests for comment. Sempra Energy also declined an interview.

    Back in Jacume, Mexico, Jose Mercado says he was concerned about possible harm to local wildlife, but he decided it wasn’t his priority.

  • JOSE MERCADO (through interpreter):

    That’s the way of the Mexican. We see the cash and the present, not the people in front or behind us, like the government, which thinks only of its purse.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    But on the U.S. side of the border, Donna Tisdale continues her legal battle, saying she doesn’t blame the Mexicans for accepting the project on their land.

  • DONNA TISDALE:

    You have to be a certain persuasion to enjoy country life. And not everyone appreciates it, but it’s really missed when it’s gone.

  • JEAN GUERRERO:

    As the project grows, the divide between Mexicans who benefit economically and Americans who are opposed for environmental reasons is likely to intensify in the coming years.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jean Guerrero in Jacume, Mexico.

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