Even Clean Energy Has Its Little Oil Spills

Wind turbines were planted along a strip of Mexico’s southern coast to make the country’s power industry cleaner. Now they’re spilling oil.

In the town of Juchitan last month, a clean-up was under way around a generator owned by Electricite de France. Workers wearing goggles and masks were scrubbing off a copper-colored lubricant that dripped down from the turbine. They’d wrapped cloth around its base, to absorb further leakage, and stuffed contaminated soil and stones into plastic trash-bags.

Flor, who owns the land where the turbine is sited and rents it to EDF, said she arrived on the scene after being alerted by a neighbor. “The stench was terrible, like a sort of burned fuel or ammonia,” she said, asking not to be identified by her surname out of concern over reprisals. “The trees were glistening with oil.” Similar problems have been reported all along the Tehuantepec isthmus, one of the western hemisphere’s windiest places.

While the leaks are limited in scope and probably pose no immediate health risk, they look bad — and that’s yet another headache for Mexico’s energy reformers, who are seeking to make more use of renewable sources as state monopolies open up to private capital. The plan has succeeded in attracting global investment, and wind power is getting its share, with more than $6.9 billion already pledged. But it’s also stirring up all kinds of local opposition, which could soon rebound against President Enrique Pena Nieto’s governing party at the ballot-box.

‘Vicious’ Winds

Gas-price hikes in January sparked nationwide protests and looting. The Chiapas region, with a history of rebellion, is up in arms again over plans to sell oil-drilling licenses. And now in neighboring Oaxaca state — home to almost two-thirds of Mexico’s wind-power capacity, including the Tehuantepec turbines — protesters are blockading local highways and calling for future development to be shelved. Locals often check the radio before their morning commute to find out which routes are blocked.

Electricite de France said in an e-mailed statement that its procedure in such cases would be to ascertain the leak’s causes and assess any environmental damage. Then, “the affected soil, vegetation, pasture and/or crops are removed and the landowner is monetarily compensated,” it said. EDF didn’t say which stage it had reached in the Mexican case. It said the lubricant in question was classified as “not dangerous to the environment.”

Spain’s Acciona SA, which encountered similar problems at its installations nearby, said the leaks are a consequence of the same extreme weather that attracted the industry to the isthmus.

Winds “can be vicious” for as much as half the year, said Miguel Angel Alonso Rubio, head of Acciona’s Mexican unit. The turbines use lubricating oil that can leak if upkeep is insufficient or gears malfunction. “During those six months of intense winds, we are unable to clean the leaks,” Alonso said. “We prefer to have the machine dirty than an employee in an accident.”

He said oil from Acciona’s turbines never reached the ground, and the company is working on a fix: a sheath for the gearbox which will prevent the lubricant from running down the mast or onto the blades.

Gamesa Corp Tecnologica SA, which made the EDF turbines used at the Juchitan wind park, said oil leaks occur with “relative frequency” and operators are equipped with “spill kits” to deal with them. Most leaks are contained, though “small amounts habitually” spill from the turbines, the company said in an e-mailed response to questions.

‘Water and Food’

Ramon Fiestas Hummler, chairman of the Latin America committee at the Global Wind Energy Council, said it’s unusual for such spills to actually contaminate surrounding soil, and when they do then “the company has an obligation to clean the affected area.” He said actual environmental damage would likely be limited. Still, “black stains on white turbines provide local communities with a visible reason to point to when opposing wind projects.”

Activists in south Mexico say they’re worried that more turbines are on the way, and that will mean more leaks.

Pena Nieto’s plan calls for 35 percent of Mexico’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2024. Companies including EDF last year won rights to build more generators in Tehuantepec, and there’ll be further auctions this year. Oaxaca state should be generating 5,000 megawatts by 2020, about twice its current capacity, according to the Mexico Wind Energy Association, known as Amdee.

“You might not think it’s that big a deal for a little bit of oil to end up in the land,” said Bettina Cruz, an activist, at her home in Juchitan. “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.”

Populist Threat

Cruz is a Zapotec, one of the indigenous groups scattered across Mexico that often take the lead in local protests. Carlos Sanchez founded Radio Totopo and does a daily broadcast in the Zapotec dialect. “The government seems to award projects to giant companies without considering that there are already people living on these lands,” he said. “And they are the people that have been here for centuries.”

Dissatisfaction with the government isn’t confined to outspoken activists. Pena Nieto’s nationwide approval rating slumped into the teens earlier this year.

The president can’t stand for re-election in 2018. His PRI party — which has run Mexico for 76 of the past 88 years — faces a major challenge from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a populist who’s vowed to put opposition to the energy reforms at the heart of his campaign. Local elections next month may offer an early indicator of his prospects.

Of course, there are plenty of people in Oaxaca who have no problem with its role as Mexico’s reservoir of wind-power.

“The majority of people in towns with wind parks are probably still in favor,” said Marcelino Nolasco, coordinator of the Tepeyac Human Rights Center in Oaxaca. “But over time, people have seen less benefits than originally promised.”

Job opportunities, for example, have fallen short of expectations, locals say. And the touted improvements to roads or schools also haven’t materialized, on the whole. That kind of obligation shouldn’t have been loaded on private companies in the first place, according to Leopoldo Rodriguez, Amdee’s president.

“Investments can’t be considered a substitute for the government’s duties,” he said. “Social demands, specifically for indigenous areas, are making wind projects more expensive and less competitive.”

Another grievance is emblematic of the wider difficulties that Pena Nieto’s reforms have encountered. Oil investment was supposed to lower costs; instead, gasoline prices rose. Similarly, for all the efforts to harness the winds of the Tehuantepec, people there complain that their electricity bills haven’t gotten any smaller.

Much of the power produced by the wind turbines is sent to Mexico’s biggest companies, like Cemex SAB and Wal-Mart’s Mexico branch, known as Walmex, which get tax incentives in return for using renewable energy. Government energy policies have to take a longer view. Still, the fact that locals haven’t seen short-term results in the form of lower costs has added to their resentment, Nolasco said.

“Support is waning,” he said. “And with every new turbine, it generates more tension.”

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