How Are We Doing On Solar Energy?

Like, we’re not going to be running out of sun shine any time soon

Our state has earned high praise as the first region in Latin America to install large, publicly and privately funded solar facilities. México and Latin America have seen what many analysts describe as a boom in photovoltaic (PV) solar plant installations and  it all started right here in Baja California Sur.

2016-03-21-(7).jpgSanta Rosalía 1, México´s first publicly funded solar field, went into operation in 2012. This 1 MW (megawatt) plant contains over 4,000 solar panels and was inaugurated by former president Felipe Calderon. In April, 2012, Mr. Calderon passed the General Law on Climate Change, which calls for a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Two years later, our capital city of La Paz became the home of the first large, 30 MW, utility-scale solar plant in México. Called Aura Solar 1, it sprawls over 250 acres, and cost roughly 100 million dollars. It’s owned by Aura Solar, a Mexican company. It was partly financed by the World Bank and through loans from the International Community Foundation out of San Diego and Financiera Nacional.

This one was inaugurated by current President Enrique Peña Nieto in March, 2014 and held the distinction as the largest PV solar facility in Latin America until it was outshone by a 100 MW solar field that came on line just two months later in Chile. Although one of Aura Solar 1´s 20 transformers was destroyed in a fire caused by a short circuit a month after the plant began operations, and in spite of damage suffered by Hurricane Odile in 2014, the solar facility is still going strong. It provides clean energy to more than 160,000 residents.

There is more good news to report as well. A second, 25 MW, solar plant in La Paz, this one owned by Grupotec, is also under construction and will be built with an 11 MW battery storage system. The Santa Rosalía 1 solar field will also be expanded in the future and will provide an additional 9 MW´s of clean energy. Santa Rosalía is also the home of the only geothermal power plant in the state, which contributes 10 megawatts of renewable energy to the region.

“La Paz to become the first 100% solar powered city in Latin America.” Announced the general director of CFE, (The federal electric utility), Enrique Ochoa.  “With La Paz´s two solar energy plants, 100 % of the energy needs of La Paz´s 250,000 residents will be met.” This positive news has caught the attention of many industry leaders around the world, and several articles have been written about La Paz going solar, with typical headings announcing: “Energy independence: La Paz, México to meet 100% of energy demand through solar,” or “The first city in Latin America to boast 100% renewable generation,” and the like. While this sunny news is well received, and the construction of the 132,000 panel Aura Solar facility in La Paz is certainly an enviable achievement, the declarations should come with a caveat.

Although these announcements are basically true, the city, nevertheless, is still home to five of the state´s large, conventional energy plants, which are not exactly producing pristine air. These power plants supply energy to the city and many other parts of the state and burn low-grade fuel oil and high-sulfur diesel, and have been the object of well-founded criticism over the years as being dirty, inefficient, toxic, and costly.

While the solar fields will play a significant role in improving air quality around La Paz, they will still have to co-exist with environmentally unfriendly fossil fuel plants that produce over 250 MW´s of dirty energy, which is more than four times the amount of energy that will be produced by the combined solar plants.

Ah, but the federal government says it has a solution—albeit a costly solution. A national infrastructure plan has been approved which will bring natural gas to Baja California Sur, and in 2015, CFE announced a call for bids to transport the gas, (piped undersea or by ship), to the Baja peninsula. In the meantime, two new, supposedly efficient electric plants will be built in 2016 and in 2018 north of La Paz. These new plants as well as the older generating plants will probably be retrofitted in the future to use natural gas, which would improve air quality considerably. The combined costs, however, of these enormous transport projects (tentatively scheduled to go into operation by December, 2018) and the new generating plants may exceed one billion dollars.

So it is likely –or at least possible—that within a few years or so both the new and old electric plants, powered by natural gas, will no longer produce the occasional brown haze to which La Paz residents have grown accustomed. Although natural gas is considered a potent greenhouse gas and produces carbon emissions, it is regarded as a cleaner and less toxic fuel source and its cost is lower than conventional fuels.

Our current governor, Carlos Mendoza, while serving as a senator in 2014, introduced a bill that passed in the Senate that would address air quality problems in La Paz and the harmful use of contaminating fuels used in the state´s generating plants. In the same year, México finally enacted major energy reforms, which created sweeping and historic changes in its energy policy and have opened up the electricity sector to private investors. According to President Peña Nieto, these reforms will lead, “to more energy generation, cleaner energy, and above all, cheaper energy to help make México a more competitive country”.

By working together, Southern Baja residents and others could create even greater opportunities for sustainable energy projects, including wind power. Having said that, how many solar fields or wind turbines would a billion dollars buy? Perhaps one day we could even dismantle our conventional electric plants altogether. And given that some of the highest solar radiation rates in the world occur on the Baja peninsula, abundant, pure, and safe solar energy may be the brightest option in any long-term plan.

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