Mexican wind energy boom

Mexico, the world’s 14th biggest economy, still punches well below its weight in terms of wind energy, ranking 24th on the planet in installed capacity last year, according to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC).

But the market is growing fast. By the end of this year, the national wind energy association expects Mexico to jump to number 20 on the list, which is dominated by wealthy European nations, the United States, China and India.

"We’re talking about the largest growth in wind power projects anywhere in the world," President Felipe Calderon said recently near La Ventosa at the opening of Latin America’s largest wind park owned by Spanish company Acciona SA, a long row of turbines whirring behind him.

Producing just 3 megawatts of wind power in 2005, Mexico now has nearly 400 times that, and will have 2 gigawatts (GW) by the end of 2012, says the Mexican Wind Energy Association, or AMEE.

Though it only accounts for a fraction of the 2011 global total of nearly 240 GW, by the beginning of next year, Mexico’s installed wind power potential should equal almost 4 percent of the country’s own energy needs.

The planned build-up will make Mexico’s wind industry the fastest growing in the Group of 20 economic powers this year, said Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Brussels-based GWEC. He also said Mexico’s net addition to installed capacity in 2012 could be the fifth highest of any country.

Most of the increase will come from giant wind farms along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest point between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Eighteen of Mexico’s 27 wind plants now operate around La Ventosa.

Acciona says its $600 million project alone will be enough to power 700,000 Mexican homes, generating 306 MW of energy with 204 turbines. That investment will be followed later this year by an even bigger wind farm owned by the Macquarie Group’s Mexico hedge fund, in partnership with Mitsubishi Corp and PGGM, a leading Dutch pension fund.

By turning to wind, Mexico aims to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels that now power some 80 percent of electricity.

"It has the potential to transform how Mexico gets and uses energy," said V. John White, director of California’s Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.

AMEE President Leopoldo Rodriguez expects Mexico’s total wind power supply to hit 4 GW by 2015, and go as high as 12 GW in 2020 — enough to cover about 15 percent of future energy needs. The United States, by comparison, aims to generate 20 percent of its electricity with wind by 2030.

All told, the government estimates Mexico’s total wind power potential at 71 GW — a figure well beyond the 51 GW of installed energy capacity in Latin America’s No. 2 economy last year.

The difference in temperature between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean in the southern state of Oaxaca creates one of the planet’s strongest wind tunnels as gusts tear through gaps in the Sierra Madre mountains.

"When the wind blows hard here, buses fall over and entire trees are uprooted," said La Ventosa shopkeeper Miriam Luis.

At the other end of the country, Mexico will begin its first-ever wind power exports next year to San Diego from a giant farm in the Baja California peninsula.

The government is giving incentives to companies to use wind energy and Cemex, one of the world’s largest cement makers, bread maker Grupo Bimbo, the Mexican arm of Wal-Mart, and mining company Penoles are among the corporations signing up.

The Federal Electricity Commission, or CFC, offers companies a discount on electricity prices if they sign long-term power contracts with wind farms. As a result, the CFC is able to seek international financing at attractive rates to improve transmission infrastructure and promote the boom.

Some firms take advantage of government tax breaks to build the farms themselves and others simply buy the energy from wind plants already being built, mainly by Spanish developers.

Under the government’s scheme, companies get credit for feeding the national grid with extra electricity they don’t use, leading to savings up to 10 percent on their electricity bills.

Investors can also make good money from wind projects in emerging markets such as Mexico, said Rupesh Madlani, head of clean technology research at Barclays Capital.

Rates of return in Mexico are "comfortably over 10 percent" compared with 8 percent for western Europe, and 10 percent for many developing nations, Madlani said.

Wind Power in Mexico

2004: 2 MW
2005: 2 MW
2006: 84 MW
2007: 85 MW
2008: 85 MW
2009: 202 MW
2010: 517 MW
2011: 873 MW
2014: 2,500 MW (p)
2020: 12,000 MW (p)