Sandia LabNews

Sandia program encourages use of renewable energy technologies in eight Mexican states

Marcos Alvarez, a cattle rancher in the desert of Baja California, Mexico, faced a dilemma each year that cost him many thousands of pesos and the loss of some of his herd.

During the hot, dry spring months he would be forced to buy expensive feed for his 39 steers, and his ranch hands would spend extra hours each day ensuring the cattle had sufficient water.

This spring, however, he had new grass coming up, water automatically flowing into troughs, and an emergency supply of silage ready to feed his cattle produced from grass grown on his ranch.

The change is due in part to a new photovoltaic water pumping system that Alvarez installed with help from Sandia and FIRCO (Fideicomiso de Riesgo Compartido), a federal agency under the Mexican secretary of agriculture that encourages the use of advanced technologies to increase agricultural production.

"The idea is to integrate the photovoltaic system into the design of a small desert cattle ranch that each year faces a critical shortage of feed during the driest season," says John Strachan of Sandia’s Mexico Renewable Energy Program in Renewable Energy Dept. 6201. "Alvarez now has a system designed to pump enough water for his cattle during that critical period and an excess of water during the balance of the year to grow and store fodder." 200 projects

Alvarez’s photovoltaic well is one of nearly 200 renewable energy projects in eight Mexican states that Sandia has sponsored over the past four years in partnership with Mexican state and federal organizations and international environmental groups. The goals are to increase the appropriate and sustainable use of renewable energy technologies in Mexico, thereby expanding markets for US industry, and increasing the use of renewable energy technologies for combating global climate change, especially greenhouse gas emissions.

Tremendous opportunities exist in Mexico for growth in the use of renewable energy technologies. According to some estimates, more than five million Mexicans do not have access to grid electricity in 88,000 villages, while more than 100,000 rural communities are in need of potable drinking water. More than 600,000 rural ranches need water for livestock or irrigation. Given Mexico’s abundant solar and wind resources, these rural needs represent a potential market for renewable energy technologies of over $1 billion.

Sandia’s role in the projects is to provide training and technical assistance, initiate renewable energy pilot projects that could be easily replicated by area residents, and help pay for a portion of the pilot project costs. Since 1994 Sandia has received $10 million to operate the program, including nearly $6 million from the Mexico Office of the US Agency for International Development and $4 million from DOE.

The choice of a partner to co-sponsor renewable energy projects in Mexico with Sandia depends on the state where the projects are located.

For example, Sandia partnered with FIRCO in Sonora, Baja California Sur, San Luis Potosi, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Quintana Roo. In Chihuahua, projects have been implemented by a consortium of 18 state and federal organizations, called the Chihuahua Renewable Energy Working Group. In yet another model, Sandia works with a group of international organizations concerned about nature — The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International. The renewable energy projects are tools for the management of reserves and sustainable development of "buffer communities," those that border ecologically sensitive areas.

"The conservation organizations support projects like using solar and wind energy to generate electricity in hotels and ranger stations in reserves," says Charlie Hanley (6201), manager of the Mexican program. "These are generally areas where a gas-powered generator could potentially harm the environment."

Most program activities focus on the implementation of water-pumping systems, such as the one used by Alvarez. For the majority of these projects, government programs provide 50 percent of the cost of a pilot project, while the end user — people like Alvarez — pay for 25 percent. Sandia’s share is 25 percent.

"However, this wasn’t always the case," John says. "When we first started the program, people were so unfamiliar with the technologies and uncertain about their performance, that we paid up to 85 percent of the costs of our first projects."

Potential projects are initially identified by the Mexican partners. Sandia then steps in, helps select a pilot project based on its feasibility, and offers technical assistance. The Sandians train locals who want a similar project on their property, develop system requirements, provide technical review of bids, share costs of hardware, and evaluate and monitor the projects following their installation.

"We work closely with local suppliers of renewable energy equipment to make sure that systems meet customers’ needs and that they get a good product," Charlie says. "As we help local project implementers build the technical capacity to use renewables, it’s important to assure that local suppliers can meet these increased expectations. In this way, everybody wins. Customers are happier with their purchases, government and private sector engineers gain new capabilities, and suppliers increase their sales through improved performance of their products."

Since the inception of the renewable energy program in 1994, a total of 200 renewable energy systems have been installed in eight Mexican states, providing energy to more than 9,000 people and indirectly benefiting almost 50,000 more. While the majority use photovoltaic energy, several of the projects demonstrated wind energy for water pumping and electricity generation.

Sam Varnado, Director of Energy/Critical Infrastructure Center 6200, says he is particularly proud of the Mexico renewable energy program because "it meets a real humanitarian need in a cost-effective manner." "Drawing on Sandia’s broad range of renewable energy technologies, this successful program can serve as a model for other international programs," he adds.

Charlie says Sandia’s Mexico Renewable Energy Program has been effective because it is a team effort using the diverse expertise of many Sandia engineers, as well as the services of other contractors, including New Mexico State University; Winrock International, an international agricultural development nonprofit organization; and Enersol Associates, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of photovoltaic energy.

In addition, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., is a partner in the program, providing technical support related to the development of wind projects and assessment of both the solar and wind resources.

"Together we are helping our neighbors to the south use the plentiful renewable energy resources to improve their lives," Charlie says.