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Saturday
Sep252010

A chopper ride through one of Mexico's windiest areas...


The most stunning experience of my trip along the US-Mexico border in Baja California state was my helicopter ride over the Sierra Juarez mountain range. We took off in Mexicali and flew along a lonesome desert highway toward the looming mountainous spine that runs down the middle of the state. Even the wind at low altitudes is strong; the week before I visited, this highway was closed when gusts toppled six trucks.

 

A series of switchbacks led up and up to the rocky ridge known as La Rumorosa, named for the sound of whispered rumors that come through holes in rock walls. The austere landscape was dotted by bushes huddled close the ground and homes whose corrugated metal roofs were weighed down by stones so as not to be carried away. Only scraps of a flag fluttered from its pole. Wind measurement towers signalled the country's intention to finally harness this resource; in the distance, across the US border, 25 turbines were already spinning.

The wind was fairly tame that day as compared to normal, but heavy enough that the pilot had to constantly counter its best attempts to toss the chopper. In retrospect, it makes me think of the best way to ensure that a mosquito can't bite you while sleeping: aim a fan at your bed and they won't be able to control their own flight. At one point, I wanted a better look at a high-voltage transmission tower, and asked the pilot if he wouldn’t mind getting closer… then immediately wondered if those words had actually come from my mouth. We then set our sights on Mexcali; the view of the desert below from the crown of the mountain range was spectacular.

Among other things, I toured the Cerro Prieto geothermal plant, a solar panel production facility owned by Kyocera, and met Baja's governor, but still hadn't done what I most wanted to do: visit the Valle de las Misiones residential solar generation pilot project. I repeatedly told this to the state government's PR flack, but he was having none of it. His attitude at first could only be described as dismissive, but his rebuffs amidst my insistence soon became suspicious. When I told him I was going to hop in a cab, he responded that all the roads to get there had been closed. There seemed to be a specific reason he didn't want me to go, and I soon found out what it was.

Mexican power monopoly CFE's photo of Valle de Las Misiones displays modest homes with roofs topped by impeccable blue photovolatic panels absorbing the brutal desert sunshine. That, however, was not the neighborhood I found. Some of the panels had been stolen, while the majority of those that remained were layered with dust. Several of the meters outside the homes indicated that power supply from the grid had been cut because people had not paid their power bills. Had they simply kept their panels clean, this would not have been the case. Exterior incandescent lights left turned on in broad daylight seemed an apt metaphor for the fact that Valle de Las Misiones' inhabitants still had much to learn about proper power consumption. This was not the picture-perfect model of sustainable living the government intended to portray.

Contrast between a couple clean panels in the background, and the others covered with dust.

As mentioned in the article, the government had already begun teaching residents about energy efficiency as well as maintenance of their panels, and I have not been back to see the results of that effort. However, I saw this scene less as disappointing on a local level, than as indicative of the general challenge for humanity: if even those who have a solar panel bolted to their roof lack awareness about their energy use, it means we've still got a ways to go. At the very least Valle de las Misiones marks a noble start to that process, and there is hope. People from neighborhoods nearby had been coming to the government’s on-site office asking how they can get solar panels of their own.

 

Comparing one resident's power bills before and after installation of her PV panels

 

In Mexicali, air conditioning is a blessing of nearly religious proportions

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    David L. Biller, Journalist - On Assignment - A chopper ride through one of Mexico's windiest areas...
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    Response: pool heat
    David L. Biller, Journalist - On Assignment - A chopper ride through one of Mexico's windiest areas...

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