First U.S.-Mexico Wind Energy Project Faces Legal Challenge
Energía Sierra Juárez is the first cross-border wind farm project between the U.S. and Mexico. Plans to extend capacity by 700 percent have been met with criticism of the potential environmental impact. (Nicholas McVicker/KPBS)
A historic wind farm in Mexico started sending electricity across the border into San Diego County this summer, but some residents are still fighting it in federal court.
Energía Sierra Juárez, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, is the first cross-border wind generation project between the U.S. and Mexico. Although clean energy collaboration was on the agenda for industry leaders meeting at San Diego's Border Energy Forum in mid-October, some residents claim its first incarnation violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and more.
The wind farm in Rumorosa, Baja California, sells 100 percent of its output to San Diego Gas & Electric under a 20-year $820 million power purchase agreement. Sempra affiliates IEnova and InterGen plan to expand the farm’s capacity for 155 megawatts by up to 700 percent.
With a 1,200-megawatt capacity and hundreds of new turbines, its output would be comparable with that of the largest wind farm in the U.S., Alta Wind Energy Center in Kern County. Subsequent phases could theoretically connect to the Mexican grid.
Energía Sierra Juárez is part of a binational scramble for clean energy. California must get half of its electricity from renewables by 2030, up from a previous target of 33 percent. Mexico recently set a target of 35 percent by 2024.
“All these agencies and companies are in lockstep on this green energy rush, whether it’s actually beneficial to us or not,” said Donna Tisdale, a resident of Boulevard in East San Diego County.
Tisdale is leading the lawsuit against Energía Sierra Juárez, which also names the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Among other things, the lawsuit claims the Department of Energy issued a presidential permit without considering environmental impacts in Mexico or alternative clean energy projects, as required by law.
‘All one landscape’
The Sierra de Juárez mountain range where the turbines are located is part of what environmentalists call “the Western spine” of North America. The landscape includes coniferous forest, desert scrub, chaparral and piñon pine. The area is home to the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep, mountain lions, California condors, golden eagles and other cross-border creatures.
Opponents to Energía Sierra Juárez argue the wind farm hurts wildlife and is disrupting migration patterns on both sides of the border.
“Natural resources don’t recognize any sort of political boundaries,” said Jerre Stallcup, senior conservation ecologist at the Conservation Biology Institute.
Environmental impacts in Mexico can have consequences in the U.S., she said. She is not part of the lawsuit against the wind farm, but she said she is concerned about its environmental impacts and has launched an initiative to protect the region.
“I would just like to see Californians take more responsibility for resource conservation and management in Mexico because it is all one landscape,” she said.
The Department of Energy did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Sempra Energy also declined an interview, but operator IEnova said in an email that the company is “committed to the respect, protection and conservation of the environment.”
The company cited an on-site nursery containing nearly 7,000 rescued plants, a bird and bat monitoring program and the safe relocation of 95 rattlesnakes.
Green lights from Mexican officials
In the court documents, defendants argue they don’t have to consider environmental impacts in Mexico, so long as that country approves. Mexico’s national environmental agency, Semarnat, gave the project a green light.
“It not only meets the environmental impact requirements, it also deals with climate change and global warming problems,” said Alfonso Blancafort, Semarnat’s federal representative in Baja California.
Blancafort said that although Mexico is not yet receiving any of the project’s electricity, the country and the environment as a whole are benefiting.
“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,” he said.
A new chapter of collaboration
During an inauguration ceremony in August, top Mexican officials applauded the wind farm, saying it signals a new chapter of clean energy collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico.
Mexico’s energy minister, Pedro Joaquin Coldwell, said, “Baja California is distinguishing itself as a state that bets on clean energy.”
Sweeping energy reforms in Mexico helped push the project forward, as President Enrique Peña Nieto opened the market to private investment and set new clean energy targets.
“Both the U.S. and the Mexican governments have been, as part of the bilateral agenda, talking about increasing collaboration on renewable energy, especially along the border,” said Gerónimo Gutiérrez, president of the North American Development Bank, which helped finance the $300 million Baja California wind farm.
“I would say (Energía Sierra Juárez) is a good and clear example of what can be accomplished.”
The failed fight in Mexico
In 2011, the Mexican environmental organization Terra Peninsular filed a lawsuit against Semarnat for approving the project’s environmental impact assessment for Mexico.
“The environmental impact assessments are not done properly,” said Terra Peninsular board member Oracio De la Cueva. “They’re rubber-stamped and we don’t see a follow-up.”
The environmental impact assessment, known as an MIA in Mexico, outlined an impact area of hundreds of square miles without specifying exact locations of turbines, roads and other infrastructure.
The exact locations are important, De La Cueva said, because they determine how much of an impact there would be on wildlife.
“I’ve never read or come across an application for an impact permit that was so poorly undertaken,” said Aaron Quintanar, a San Diego resident and environmentalist who served as an adviser in the Mexican lawsuit.
“This is my wild place,” Quintanar said . “My whole life I’ve been up here on these ranges.”
Semarnat’s Blancafort said the MIA met the legal requirements in Mexico. The Mexican lawsuit failed.
The U.S. lawsuit
Mark Ostrander lives in Jacumba Hot Springs, footsteps from the border fence. His property is a maze of vintage machines and other equipment he tinkers with and recycles.
“Oh, I just make stuff,” he said. “I don’t like to see stuff thrown away.”
He even installed a vertical axis wind turbine on his property.
“I don’t pay a utility bill at this point because I have solar and wind,” he said. “I’m trying to do my part to reduce my carbon footprint.”
So it may come as a surprise to learn that Ostrander is part of the lawsuit against Energía Sierra Juárez.
Ostrander can see the turbines from his property, and he says their flashing red lights have ruined his stargazing opportunities.
More importantly, though, he said he’s concerned about fire. Ostrander is a retired battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He fought fires for nearly 40 years.
He said the industrial scale of Energia Sierra Juarez makes it a fire threat, especially during drought. The first phase alone includes 47 turbines, a nearly 5-mile cross-border transmission line and 25 miles of new roads. The project required the construction of a $435 million substation just north of the border.
Some of the region’s worst wildfires in recent history were caused by power lines, such as the 2007 Witch Fire, Ostrander said. And roads encourage traffic, which increases the risk of human-induced fires.
Ostrander is also concerned about environmental damage. He said bobcats, deer and other wild animals have started showing up on his property.
“There’s so much encroachment on their territory that they’re looking for any safe place, and I don’t harass them, so they just stay here,” he said. “But I have to watch out for my pets because they may become dinner.”
The woman behind the legal challenge
Tisdale, the Boulevard resident who is leading the fight against Energía Sierra Juárez, said she knows she won’t be able to undo the first phase of the project. But there’s still the expansion to think of.
“You have to be of a certain persuasion to enjoy country life, and not everybody appreciates it, but it’s really missed when it’s gone,” said Tisdale, who has been likened to a local Erin Brockovich.
Energía Sierra Juárez is just one of numerous wind farms and other industrial projects that Tisdale is fighting or has challenged with her nonprofit, Backcountry Against Dumps. It started in the late '80s, when she helped the Campo Indians fight off a 600-acre landfill they believed would poison their wells.
She said she is concerned about the possible human health risks, in addition to environmental impacts tied to Energía Sierra Juárez. Like Ostrander, Tisdale can see the turbines from her property.
“Turbines generate a low-frequency noise, and some of it’s actually infrasound, where you cannot physically hear it but your body’s reacting to it, so it triggers what is called the fight-or-flight response,” she said. “You may not realize what is stressing you out, or what’s draining your adrenal glands, but you’re actually being affected by the wind turbines.”
The 2014 Institute For Energy Research Hard Facts report cites a Minnesota Department of Health study as evidence that there are negative human health impacts from wind farms, such as those described by Tisdale.
Asfaw Beyene, professor of mechanical engineering at San Diego State University, said he’s not convinced. He said the only serious concern related to wind farms is the fact that they kill birds.
“These discomforts are quite minor compared to the global problem we are facing in terms of climate change,” he said.
Energía Sierra Juárez is expected to displace nearly 126,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. That's equivalent to the annual emissions of nearly 27,000 average passenger vehicles, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In a September order, U.S. District Judge James Lorenz dismissed plaintiffs' motions for summary judgment on environmental issues. But he granted that the Department of Energy did not adequately consider alternatives to Energía Sierra Juárez. He said the statement of purpose and need for the presidential permit "focused almost exclusively on private interests."
Alternatives include distributive options like Ostrander’s home solar panels.
“We feel like energy should be generated closer to the point of use,” Tisdale said.
That would eliminate the need for long transmission lines and decrease wildlife damage, she said.
Praise from Mexicans who live near the turbines
The Mexicans who live next to the turbines say they’re happy with them. The wind farm is located on the communally owned land of Ejido Jacumé, just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We lease the land to the company, right? And the company put the turbines, giving us a percentage of their profits,” said José Mercado, a 62-year-old resident of Jacumé.
Each of the 76 members of the commune gets about $25 per person on the lease, while dividing 4 percent of revenues from the sale of electricity. That amounts to about $2,000 a month, Mercado said. That’s huge for Jacumé, where the primary income source had been livestock.
“The land wasn’t apt for plantings, or even construction, because it’s all just rock,” he said. “(The wind farm) gives us money to survive without having to work. That’s what we want.”
He said he’s concerned about possible harm to wildlife, but he decided it wasn’t his priority.
“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, and says, countrymen, figure things out on your own,” he said.
In Boulevard, Tisdale said she doesn’t blame the residents of Jacumé for accepting the wind farm on their land.
“When you don’t have anything, and someone offers you something, it’s hard to say no,” she said. “And we don’t hold that against people.”
But that’s why she sees it as her responsibility to fight back.