Mexico Border Wall Won’t Stop Cross-border Power Push

Relations between the United States and Mexico are strained at the national level, with President Donald Trump pushing his promised border control wall and demanding a U.S.-favored rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But Mexico and the southwestern states have continued working towards an international agenda for electricity, and regional players are talking up a first set of projects due to be completed before Trump’s term is up — projects that put the region on a path to a far more electrically-porous border.

These projects include a trio of new crossborder links between California, Arizona and Mexico to be completed in the next three years. They also include grid studies, revised market rules, and new power lines within Mexico that could rapidly expand flows over all of the U.S.-Mexico interties. “The proposition right now is fairly small because the interconnections are small. But that’s going to change,” says Carl Zichella, director for Western transmission at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

SENER Cross-Border-Interconnections-Mexico-Ministry-of-Energy

Many US-Mexico electric interties operate at relatively low voltage (ie low tensión) and are used infrequently – some only during emergencies. Credit: Mexico Ministry of Energy (SENER)

Transmission experts such as Zichella trace today’s momentum back to energy reforms enshrined in Mexico’s constitution in 2014. Those reforms opened up Mexico’s state-dominated energy sector, providing access to private and foreign investment for energy infrastructure and unleashing rapid development of some of North America’s best renewable energy resources.

In 2016 wind and solar capacity grew 33 percent and 114 percent, respectively, according to Mexico’s power grid and market operator, the Centro Nacional de Control de Énergía. CENACE’s 2017-2031 grid development plan (reviewed here in English) foresees wind and solar meeting two-thirds of an estimated 55,840 megawatts of demand growth through 2031.

A more porous border will ease the challenge of backing up that variable renewable power, which is growing on both sides of the border. Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. highlights the opportunity to trade wind power between Mexico’s San Fernando Valley, where wind blows hard during the day, and the West Texas wind power farms that run strongest overnight. “If you can link those you might be able to meet peak demand in both the U.S. and Mexico and avoid having natural gas backup,” says Wood.

Mexico’s power grids presently intersect with their U.S. counterparts at 11 points, but more than half of those links can exchange just 100 megawatts (MW) or less and almost half operate only during grid emergencies [see map below]. There are also a few dedicated lines serving individual power plants, such as one that links a natural gas-fired generator in Mission, Texas to Mexican consumers.

Today’s cross-border construction plans, in contrast, go well beyond spur lines and emergency links. The focus is on robust connections between Mexico and the giant synchronized zone operated by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) which shares alternating current amongst most of the western U.S. and Canada as well as the northernmost portion of Baja California in Mexico.

“Everything has just gone lightning speed. The political will is there,” says Antonio Ortega, who manages governmental affairs and communications for the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), which operates the grid in California’s Imperial Valley. IID and CENACE signed a memorandum in May to study exchanging up to 600 MW, and Ortega says they now have plans mapped out for a pair of interties to be completed in 2019 and 2020.

Ortega says IID has secured a substation site for one link, and is fielding calls from local geothermal developers and solar developers eager to access the Mexican market. “If all 600 MW of renewable energy development is built it would be an economic boon to the region,” he says.

CENACE and the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which controls the state’s major grids, are looking to get more out of the existing 800-MW link between the San Diego region and Baja California. Roberto Bayetti, a CAISO working closely with Mexico’s power sector, says the link is used sporadically such as when an outage leaves one side or the other short temporarily. Now they are talking about using the link to integrate renewable energy.

Bayetti says 675-MW of renewable generation under development in Baja California could help the San Diego region, which has relied heavily on imports since the region’s San Onofre nuclear power station closed down in 2013. “That would alleviate some of that congestion for us and provide a big opportunity for both sides to reduce carbon,” says Bayetti.

Greater opportunity for both IID and CAISO will open up thanks to internal transmission projects in Mexico. One that is in advanced planning is a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) line that will, for the first time, link northern Baja (and thus California’s grids) to Mexico’s main grid. “There is huge potential. Now we’re not talking about 800 MWs. We’re talking about thousands of MWs that could be transferred,” says Bayetti.

CENACE’s grid plan sees future developments pushing east to Texas, including additional cross-border HVDC links at Ciudad Juarez and Reynosa and a possible East-West HVDC line tracking south of the border from Baja to close to the Gulf of Mexico. Those projects would expand exchanges with the Texas grid – a stand-alone AC zone managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

Power system experts are optimistic that the U.S.-Mexico agenda will survive the Trump era, since the action is between regional entities. “Things are just marching along underneath any type of political discussion at the higher elevations,” says Paul Roberti, executive director for power and utilities with EY México, a branch of global accountancy and consulting firm Ernst and Young.

As for President Trump’s border wall? Eight prototypes have been erected near the Otay Mesa border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana [see photo at top]. But the wall itself may be stillborn since, as Reuters noted this week, “Congress has so far shown little interest in appropriating the estimated $21.6 billion it would cost to build the wall.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

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Storing Solar Energy: A great idea caught on contested ground

Adding energy storage to sites with rooftop solar power generation offers a range of potential benefits. A battery can help smooth out solar’s inherently variable supply of power to the local grid, and even keep buildings powered during blackouts. Consequently, power-conversion innovators are developing a host of new products designed to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of integrated solar-storage systems.

Some analysts project a boom in the co-location of solar and energy storage. GTM Research, for example, foresees that co-located PV and storage will grow from $42 million in 2014 to more than $1 billion by 2018. However, the market is moving slower than it might thanks to a little-discussed regulatory roadblock in the United States.

According to Vic Shao, CEO for the Santa Clara, California-based energy storage startup Green Charge Networks, tightly integrating storage with photovoltaics in some key states—including Hawaii and California—runs afoul of the “net metering” rules by which PV owners earn lucrative retail rates for the surplus power they feed to the grid. Adding storage can disqualify solar systems for net metering, in which utilities can pay their owners wholesale power rates that are several times lower than retail. “That is obviously a pretty big problem for anybody considering solar. That could kill a lot of projects,” says Shao. Continue reading

Low-Carbon Fuel Rules

California is about to add to its record of leadership on clean energy policy with its innovative Low-Carbon Fuel Standard that goes into effect January 1. We highlight the program and its likely impact on alternative energy sources for transportation today at MIT TechReview.com in “Low-Carbon Fuel Rules”. As the tagline states, “California is about to implement a standard to boost cleaner fuels and punish the rest.”

One point is that California’s LCFS may not deliver the knock-out blow to Canada’s carbon-intensive tarsands that many climate change activists continue to hope for. Gasoline and diesel fuel refined from the tarsands’ asphaltine bitumen may escape being banned if its producers emphasize energy efficiency according to UC Davis’ Daniel Sperling.

Another observation I’ll be following up is the cohesiveness of the biotech industry. In the face of regulatory innovations such as the LCFS that would disadvantage corn ethanol production and advantage cash-hungry innovators developing more carbon-smart advanced biofuels, the latter seem to be quietly defending the status quo.

Then there’s the California standard’s nuanced approach to diesel, which is not addressed in the TechReview piece but which Carbon-Nation spotlighted last summer. The short take is that the LCFS mandates separate and equal reductions in the carbon footprint of the gasoline and diesel fuels sold in California. That approach eliminates the possibility that diesel use will be incentivized as an alternative to gasoline. The reason? California regulators believe that even today’s ‘clean diesels’ release more than their share of soot, which is a major cause of premature mortality and also a potential contributor to climate change in its own right.

We explore the climate challenge and opportunity posed by soot in the September issue of Discover magazine. See “The Easiest Way to Fight Global Warming?”

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Toyota’s Secret: The Clean Air Act of 1970

masatami-takimoto-credit-toyotaHow many automotive engineering leaders from Detroit or Stuttgart would identify the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 as the inspiration of their engineering career? Yet that’s exactly what Masatami Takimoto did when I spoke with the Toyota executive vice president responsible for R&D and powertrain engineering earlier this month at the Geneva Motor Show.

Since Takimoto retires in June, I asked him to identify the most exciting chapter of his 39-year career with Toyota. His reply brought a smile: “You’re familiar with the Muskie law?,” asked Takimoto. I’d been asked the same question five years earlier, in Tokyo, while interviewing Takehisa Yaegashi (revered within Toyota as ‘the father of the hybrid’) for a cover story on hybrid vehicles for MIT’s Technology Review.

Thanks to Yaegashi I knew that it was Senator Ed Muskie of Maine who drove through the 1970 amendments to the U.S. air pollution law. And I knew that Muskie’s law, which required the federal government to set tailpipe emissions standards,  had inspired a lot more at Toyota than pollution-eating catalytic converters: Toyota’s engineers also began experimenting with new propulsion concepts such as the battery-powered electrical vehicle that produce inherently less pollution.

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Big Footprints Next to Carbon’s

nejm-logoThe U.S. carbon footprint looms large as Washington prepares to finally begin, in earnest, a shift away from fossil fuels under a new President promising international action to, “roll back the specter of a warming planet,” as Agence France Presse highlighted in its reporting of Obama’s inaugural address. Debate is already raging, for example, around whether President Obama will allow California and other states to ratchet up the fuel efficiency improvements automakers must make in the years to come.

But research published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine provides a needed reminder that burning less fossil fuels can also directly reduce mortality from air pollution, as reported yesterday by CNN’s health desk. (Carbon-Nation readers will recall that the network’s sci/tech/environment desk is currently unavailable, having been eliminated by CNN last month.)

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Major Automakers Spurred by California’s Higher Expectations

Honda execs John Mendel and Yasunari Seki relaunch the Insight hybrid in DetroitMajor automakers such as Honda and Chrysler are realizing that it’s time to throw away the old game plan and chart a new one around the sale of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Ironically, some of the most direct evidence of this changed thinking lies buried at the end of an otherwise apologistic report on the U.S. auto industry’s troubles in the L.A. Times earlier this week.

The story reports on a likely forthcoming waiver from President Obama’s EPA effectively allowing states to demand better fuel economy than the federal CAFE standard. After declaring this a “nightmare scenario for automakers,” the article delivers desperate quotes from General Motors and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade group that fought (unsuccessfully) to block California’s standards in court. A GM spokesperson sets the tone, saying that subjecting a depressed industry to these tough standards is like asking a cancer patient to, “finish chemo and then go run the Boston Marathon.”

Here’s an alternative bedside analogy that looks to a deeper cancer: Setting lower standards than the European Union and China are already phasing in is reminiscent of the fatalistic approach to cancer treatment in which doctors hid from their patients the full extent of their sickness.

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Will Obama Get EPA Off the Road?

President Obama’s first move for clean tech could simply be getting the federal government out of the way in one area where the states are already poised to move aggressively: fuel economy. Candidate Obama promised to do as much on the campaign trail and yesterday Lisa Jackson, his nominee for EPA administrator, provided some hope that he will follow through in office.

Jackson, formerly New Jersey’s top environmental regulator, pledged in a Senate confirmation hearing yesterday that she would “immediately revisit” whether to allow states to set CO2 emissions limits on automobiles.

The CO2 tailpipe standards at issue were set by California in 2004 and subsequently adopted by 18 other states, which are more stringent than the tightened Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards approved by Congress in December 2007. Federal courts rejected auto industry challenges against the tougher state standards, but the Bush EPA rode to the rescue by denying California (and by extension its partner states) a federal waiver needed to implement the rules.

Jackson, if confirmed by the Senate, will thus have the power to immediately take an obstructionist EPA off the road. This could have a significant impact on technology development, given that minimal innovation is required to meet the tightened CAFE standards.

Jackson’s pledge to reconsider the state emissions waiver is an “early challenge for automakers” as Obama takes office next week, according to business journal Automotive News:

Automakers and their allies oppose state-by-state regulation of greenhouse gases. They say such rules are an indirect attempt to regulate fuel economy, which is a federal responsibility. They also say state rules would add costs and create market chaos, especially for dealers near borders with states that don’t have their own rules.

Natural Resources Defense Council vehicles policy director Roland Hwang suggested recently in a provocative report that automakers could solve such problems itself: “The obvious solution to all of the automaker concerns — including their desire for a uniform national standard — is to adopt California’s [greenhouse gas] standards nationwide.”

Hwang analyzed fuel economy projections in business plans that GM and Ford Motor submitted to Congress last month during their pursuit of a federal loan package. (His analysis excludes Chrysler, whose business plan was short on fuel economy details.) He concludes that GM and Ford could comply with the  California standards with little to no effort:

All three companies state that they will at least comply with future federal fuel economy (“CAFE”) standards. This analysis demonstrates that GM and Ford are now positioned also to comply with the more stringent California greenhouse gas standards if they were extended to apply nationwide. (my emphasis)

Postscript: Jackson’s home state of New Jersey just joined the list of states implementing California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program, according to the Daily Record of Parsippany, NJ. The ZEV program was declared dead along with the battery-electric vehicle by the award-winning 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?. In fact, the program helped drive hybrid vehicles onto car lots across the country and will likely accelerate future adoption of plug-in hybrids and battery-electrics according to my ZEV report in IEEE Spectrum magazine.

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This post was created for the Technology Review guest blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies