All posts by LL

Mexico’s Renewables Revolution Creates Tension

Men died in gun battles over the installation of windmills in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, three years ago. Opponents argued that energy companies misled them and that community leaders rented out collective lands without consulting everyone they should have. Today, protests continue, but the growth of wind farms and other renewables seems assured: Mexico boasts almost 2 gigawatts of installed wind power capacity and plans to install perhaps another 12 GW by 2022. All that clean energy is a big change for this country, which is the world’s ninth-biggest oil producer and perhaps the 11th-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Yet at a conference in the city of Oaxaca de Juárez in August 2014, audience members asked the state’s renewable energy coordinator, Sinaí Casillas Cano, what benefit the foreign-built windmills had brought. Few of the farmers who have rented their land to wind companies are qualified—or needed—to maintain the multimegawatt windmills. The benefits will arrive unevenly as Mexico races to reform its fast-growing energy sector, experts say. Better-educated Mexicans will win the first jobs, and industrial power buyers will be the first to see their electricity bills fall, according to energy strategist Eduardo Reyes of PricewaterhouseCoopers, in Mexico City.

Casillas won applause from the crowd, saying, “Oaxaca needs to keep construction and maintenance jobs here.” But to do that, Mexico needs to train engineers capable of working with—and someday competing with—the foreign firms that are leading the renewable energy boom here.

The country has now begun to mobilize its workforce. In October, the federal government launched a national program for energy-job training. The government predicts that the overall sector’s job demand will grow from about 20,000 jobs in 2015 to 50,000 by 2018, with about one-fifth of those for people with bachelor’s degrees or higher levels of training. It will provide educational grants to up to 60,000 technicians, engineers, and postgraduates.

The country’s universities have already ramped up a response as well. In 2011, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) launched a new major in renewable energy engineering. “Our graduates have a very high potential of finding jobs in the private sector and in government,” says the program’s director, Octavio García Valladares. The UNAM program has been stable at around two dozen students per class since 2012, and there are now 22 such programs nationwide.

Still, such efforts have a long way to go, says electrical engineer Santiago Barcón, a columnist for Energy Hoy in Mexico City. Unlike in the United States, where competition among companies has created a deeper, if sometimes redundant, talent field, Mexico’s history of monopoly means that fewer people have experience in each niche of the energy marketplace. And it will take a decade to get fresh graduates up to speed, Barcón says. The result will be a short-term salary bubble in the energy sector, he predicts.

PricewaterhouseCoopers expects “clean” energy production to triple from 53 terawatt-hours in 2012—around a fifth of Mexico’s generation—to 160 TWh by 2024. That gain will be thanks to a 2012 law requiring electricity generators to produce or buy 35 percent of their energy from clean sources. “Clean” in this case includes certain natural-gas plants, but large contracts for non-fossil-fuel energy are proliferating: Wind projects announced this year outside Oaxaca include a 66-megawatt, US $120 million farm in Esperanza and a 252-MW, $650 million project near General Bravo. The country’s first utility-scale solar plant, a 39-MW, $100 million facility in La Paz, opened in March. Also, a major constitutional reform of the country’s energy sector and regulations enacted this past August make it easier for producers to reach buyers.

Those projects should help unstick the country’s stagnant economy, but it may take a long time for benefits to reach Mexicans in the poorest parts of the country, such as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where the first major wind farms were installed and gun battles broke out. To counter accusations that foreign wind companies took advantage of illiterate people with little basis for judging their offers, the companies have begun to invest in social development programs.

At the August conference, Claudia Toledo Matus, a corporate-responsibility representative for the Spanish energy company Acciona, said the company’s goal was to spend 5 percent of its budget on social development over the 20-year life of the project. Yet in the first four years, Acciona spent only one-tenth of 1 percent of its Oaxaca wind budget on social programs, or around $913,000, according to Toledo. “We have to revise it every year to decide how to allocate it,” she says, but she did not provide a schedule for spending the remaining $78 million.

UNAM’s García and others criticize Mexico’s government for its delays on reforming the renewable energy sector, too. “Unfortunately, the energy reform approved in Mexico barely mentions renewable energies,” he says. Government officials will turn their attention to clean energy next, said Megan Reilly Cayten, coauthor of an August Atlantic Council report on the reform, during a conference call: “The issue has essentially been punted to the fall,” she says. By IEEE Spectrum press time, no new rules had been established. The government will need to resolve issues such as how to assign clean energy credits and how to ensure that renewables can compete with ever-cheaper natural-gas generation on the new electricity grid.

Mexico’s first university class of renewables engineers, due to graduate next year, had better study hard: They will arrive in a fast-changing market for their skills.

First published by IEEE Spectrum: [html] [pdf].
Courtesy Aurel Persiou

When Evidence Melts Away

On a recent visit to Crystal Ice Cave in Idaho, climate and cave researchers had to wade through frigid, knee-deep water to reach the ice formations that give the cave its name. Cavers are good-humored about the hardships of underground exploration, but this water was chilling for more than one reason: it was carrying away some of the very clues they had come to study.

Ice is an invaluable source of information about the earth’s past. Pollen trapped in ice from polar ice caps and mountaintop glaciers documents plant life up to 1.5 million years ago, and gas bubbles and water isotopes reveal glimpses of ancient temperatures.

Polar ice samples cannot necessarily reveal what the climate was like in, say, New Mexico or other temperate regions, however. So a decade ago a small group of researchers began meeting to discuss the potential of cave ice, some of which is more than 3,000 years old. Since then, studies have confirmed that cave ice can illuminate some questions about how lower altitudes and latitudes responded to climate swings. But by this summer, when the scientists found themselves wading through the meltwater in Crystal Ice Cave during their biennial workshop, the main question had changed from what the ice could tell them to how to retrieve enough before it disappeared.

Thus far researchers have not won much funding for long-term studies of ice caves. Part of the reason is that obtaining a sample is a massive, expensive effort, requiring intense drilling, helicopters and refrigerated vans. And geochemist Zoltán Kern of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest notes that he understands funders’ qualms because scientists have not yet figured out how to convert complicated cave ice data into tidy climate records. But this much is clear, says George Veni, director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, N.M.: before the ice melts, “the main thing is to try and collect as much of it as possible.”

First published by Scientific American: [html] [html en español] [pdf].

See also my previous feature stories on cave ice in Science Magazine and EARTH Magazine.

European Union’s pairing plan for science proves popular

A program designed to boost investments in the scientific infrastructure of Europe’s lagging regions by pairing them with elite institutes elsewhere on the continent has proved unexpectedly popular. The European Commission has received 169 scientific business plans for the scheme, dubbed Teaming, and may be able to advance only 16% of the proposals to the next round of the competition. The commission will start reviewing the proposals in Brussels next week.

“We were delighted,” says commission spokesman Michael Jennings. “The response exceeded our expectations.” It also triggered an automatic 20% boost to the evaluation budget, according to an internal commission document obtained by ScienceInsider. Continue reading

Photo samples

Here is a selection of my published photos:

Here are photos that demonstrate more of my range (and various mountain ranges…):