Latin America’s Biggest Wind Farm Courts Rising Tensions
Mitsubishi will invest US$1.2 billion to build Latin America’s biggest terrestrial wind farm in the isthmus of Tehuantepec, one of the windiest places in the Americas. But its local benefits plan has some fence-mending to do with neighbours increasingly disenchanted with the region’s multiplying wind turbines.
Mexico News Daily reports that the state of Oaxaca has licensed a 132-turbine, 400-megawatt wind farm in the municipality of Juchitán. The deal includes a $3.4-million payment to the municipality, dedicated output from two of the turbines for the municipality’s use, installation of 5,242 energy-saving light bulbs in the community, and a promise that household power costs will fall by 35%.
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The menu of local benefits reflects both the quality of the wind resource across the isthmus—that narrow bit of the Mexican map just to the left of the jutting thumb of the Yucatan peninsula—and the challenge of securing social licence in a region famous for its often bitter resistance to central authorities. In the last year, Oaxaca’s capital has witnessed large-scale demonstrations and highway blockades over issues as disparate as January’s hike in gasoline prices, and a dispute over teachers’ qualifications.
And Juchitán, as Bloomberg reports at length, is more affected than most communities on the isthmus. Mitsubishi’s will be the fourteenth wind farm within the municipality’s sprawling boundaries. And Bloomberg reports that complaints about the first 13 are mounting.
One is particularly noisome, and in contrast to wind power’s clean image: leaks of lubricating oil from spinning turbines that dribble in brown rivers down towers and spray nearby trees from whirling blade-tips.
The leaks “occur with ‘relative frequency,’” Bloomberg says, citing Gamesa Corporación Tecnológica SA, which made the turbines installed in another Juchitán wind park: what the company describes as “small amounts” of lubricating oil spill “habitually” from its units. Electricité de France, which also has turbines in the area, insisted the oil leaking from its turbines “was classified as ‘not dangerous to the environment.’”
Miguel Ángel Alonso Rubio, head of Spain’s Acciona SA’s Mexican unit, blamed oil leaks at its Juchitán turbines on winds that “can be vicious” for half the year, when it can be dangerous to service the turbines at the tops of towers. “We prefer to have the machine dirty than an employee in an accident,” Alonso said.
But one nearby landowner described the effects of a leak to Bloomberg: “The stench was terrible, like a sort of burned fuel or ammonia. The trees were glistening with oil.”
“You might not think it’s that big a deal for a little bit of oil to end up in the land,” added Bettina Cruz, an activist who lives in Juchitán. “But there are nearly 2,000 turbines here now, and hundreds more are planned in the next few years. The leaks will add up. Right into the land we use for water and food.”
“The majority of people in towns with wind parks are probably still in favour,” Marcelino Nolasco, coordinator of a human rights centre in Oaxaca, told Bloomberg. “But over time, people have seen less benefits than originally promised.” Job opportunities and improvements to roads and schools largely haven’t materialized. “Support is waning, and with every new turbine, it generates more tension.”
The Tehuantepec isthmus possesses an estimated 2.6 gigawatts of wind generation potential. But the technology used to capture that energy has provoked previous complaints from the region’s deeply traditional residents that it has affected the patterns of animal behaviour where turbines are located.