The 'wind rush': Green energy blows trouble into Mexico
Green energy's big success is a rude awakening in the isthmus of Mexico.
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"People kept telling me, 'You know we've been experiencing globalization for a really long time,' " says Wendy Call, who has written about the isthmus and notes that the Aztecs invaded first. "But I think there is a sense of fatigue, [that] 'all the other times this has happened it hasn't gone well for us.' " [Editor's note: The original version misquoted Ms. Call as saying the Aztecs were invaded first.]Skip to next paragraph
Most of Tehuantapec's communal land cannot be sold, so companies lease. A standard contract lasts 30 years, with automatic renewal.
But comparisons are deceptive. Wind farms pay – either as profit sharing or flat fee – based on how the land is used: for turbines, roads, or power lines. In Wyoming, a landowner may lease hundreds or thousands of acres to a developer for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the isthmus, most farmers control only two to 20 acres: If a turbine doesn't land on one's plot, payout may be as little as $300 to $400 per year.
Profit sharing in developed countries falls close to 5 percent. But in Oaxaca the market rate was determined to be 1 percent, says Jorge Megías Carrión, director general of Preneal, a Spanish company developing a wind farm here. "So we negotiated with the people, and we saw that we could enlarge that amount of money."
Preneal now pays landowners 1.4 percent of electricity profits. Acciona, another Spanish wind company working here, pays the equivalent of as little as 0.5 percent, according to landowners who signed contracts.
In Wyoming, landowners maintain access to their land, but here locals can lose the ability to work their small plots – either by being denied access or because turbine construction destroyed irrigation channels.
Anti-wind power graffiti now mars the walls of La Venta, and even some people who got a fair deal say their children are deserting the region because there is no future on the land.
Wind farm advocates say benefits go beyond just direct payments; wind farms bring much-needed jobs. Certainly wind farms demand a great deal of labor to build, but once running they are maintained by a few dozen highly skilled people, generally from the outside. However, many jobs are created to service those workers.
Still, in recent months people have started taking to the street to express dissatisfaction with La Venta's wind deals. In October, unrest turned deadly: A group of wind turbine contractors coming home from a project ran into anti-wind power protesters blocking a highway. Arguments led to scuffles, and one contractor was shot dead, say witnesses and relatives of the victim.
Wind companies say that a majority of locals support wind farms and suggest that unrest arises from old rivalries and misinformation.
But one Oaxaca State official disagrees, blaming foul public sentiment on previous administrations being too eager to encourage outside investment. "They didn't have experience in renewable energy. They didn't have experience in wind power. Of course they would have many errors," says Alejandro E. Velasco Hernandez, director of Renewable Energy for the state of Oaxaca, whose National Action Party won state control in 2010 from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had held it for 80 years.
"But," he adds, "now we have many opportunities to improve."