The Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) already has permission to intervene in two areas of the Primavera Forest for the next 30 years. The energy obtained during that time seems too high a price if you think about the thousands of years that the forest has lived and the thousands more it could live if it is kept safe from the threats it faces
The Primavera Forest is at serious risk. Although it supplies environmental services to the metropolitan area of Guadalajara and is a vibrant and bio-diverse area, the proposed geothermal power generation that drives the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) in the heart of the terrain— declared as a Natural Protected Area by the federal government and Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)— threatens its livelihood.
The history of geothermal exploitation in the forest began since the late 1970s, but had to be suspended in 1989 because the infrastructure work associated with the exploration caused a strong environmental impact and contamination in the area.
However, the project looks closer than ever right now: the CFE already has permits, for the next 30 years, to explore and exploit the sites known as Cerritos Colorados and Planillas, which is to say six thousand hectares where the forest's greatest diversity of flora and fauna is, states Arturo Curiel Ballesteros, head of the Scientific Committee of the Decentralized Public Organization (OPD) about the Primavera Forest.
There is also an amount of 285 million pesos in the CFE designated this year to begin the work that, according to the specialists consulted, would generate irreversible damage to the environment of the forest and would affect the environmental dynamics of the metropolitan area of Guadalajara (ZMG).
Satellite picture of the Primavera Forest and the metropolitan area of Guadalajara.
After the Energy Reform of 2014, and with the approval of the Geothermal Energy Act, performing geothermal works of exploration and exploitation of sites declared as Protected Natural Areas (ANP) is not prohibited. According to the regulations on the matter, this type of energy exploitation is of national interest and is “preferred over any other use or exploitation of the subsoil of the land.” Nevertheless, the execution of a project of this type in the Primavera could be expensive environmentally speaking. Even though the Cerritos Colorados geothermal plant would have, in its first stage, a capacity of 25 megawatts (mw)— enough to supply a community of no more than 10 thousand homes— the effects on this area could diminish their capacity because in addition, during subsequent phases, they would seek to explore and create new wells in the Planillas area, one of the best preserved in the forest.
“The forest offers multiple services. If it has survived 140,000 years, it has the ability to continue operating for the next thousand, but not geothermal energy because it exploits a heat that has been stored, in the case of the Primavera, for 60,000 years, and in the moment that it is exploited, it will begin to decline. On the other hand, although geothermal energy is regularly qualified as alternative energy, it is considered as neither clean nor sustainable when compared with solar energy,” says Curiel Ballesteros.
Geothermal energy uses the heat contained in the depths of the earth and reaches its greatest potential in volcanic sites or tectonic faults. To produce it, the ground must be drilled into up to three kilometers so as to reach areas of high water pressure and temperature (in the case of Cerritos Colorados, it has been measured up to 250°c), in order to make it rise to the surface in the form of vapor.
“It's a kind of pressure cooker in the caldera of the volcano which is two thousand meters deep; they put in a tube which takes outthe pressurized water to generate power, and the entire time you will have a column of hot steam with toxic particles. That will affect the entire forest ecosystem; microclimate will change, and vapors, by the logic of the winds, will eventually arrive at Guadalajara,” analyzesSandra Valdés Valdés, academic from the ITESO, The Jesuit University of Guadalajara, and head of the Committee for the OPD of the Primavera Forest.
“Among the harmful effects of geothermal energy is the pollution of groundwater, the contamination of soil with potentially toxic elements; the quantity of this and the management of geothermal waters could severely affect forest conditions because they may contain high amounts of salts, arsenic, boron, sulphates, and fluorides, among others,” says environmental engineer Lydia Hernández Rivera from ITESO and also a member of OPD.
Entrance to the geothermal field. This sign is located 1.7 kilometers from the first well. Photos by Luz Vázquez.
The Primavera Forest is nestled between the Sierra MadreOccidental and the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, making it one of the most diverse volcanic reliefs, documents the Program Management Area of Wildlife Protection of the Primavera. This area, declared ANP since 1980, has more than a thousand species of flora, amongst which are eleven types of oak and five of pine, as well as a great variety of orchids, some of which are endangered; furthermore, the Primavera is home to endemic species of the region, such as the Guadalajara agave, the dahlia and the mammillaria jaliscana, in as much as the populus primaveralepei, a white poplar.
The forest is also home to an important variety of animals. It is the refuge for 206 species of birds, 61 types of mammals, 20 kinds of amphibians, and 40 varieties of reptiles, explains biologist Karina Aguilar Vizcaíno who, until 2013, worked as the director of the Knowledge and Wildlife of OPD of the Primavera. “It is a complete wonder that in the Primavera we have pumas, right next to the second largest city in Mexico. It is at the top of the food pyramid; thanks to this deer eater, we know that there are enough deer, and so on.”
The root of the project and its impact
The history of this project dates back to the late 1970s, when the CFE conducted a series of studies to assess the geothermal potential of the land because recorded volcanic activity ended 25,000 years prior.
After several evaluations, “areas of high geothermal interest were identified: the southern central portion of the volcanic caldera referred to as the Primavera, in the portion known as Cerritos Colorados, and the crater dome Planillas, a hill located south, outside of the limit of the caldera,” according to the study of Environmental Impact Statement by the Autonomous University of Chapingo at the request of the CFE.
The first infrastructure work in the forest began in January 1980. Access roads were built where the first drilling points were planned within the Adolfo López Mateos ejido, and afterward, drilling was carried out in the Planillas area, where an opening of nearly four kilometers was made which connected all the way to Santa Ana Tepetitlán and San Isidro Mazatepec, as reported by the study records.
According to this document, the CFE’s explorations of this geothermal area in the volcaniccaldera of the Primavera took place in two periods: from January 1980 to August 1982, and January 1984 to March 1989, and during this time, thirteen wells were built with up to one thousand 400 meters in depth.
The activities were suspended in 1989 after causing a major environmental impact. “The forest was damaged in the Cerritos Colorados area as well as in the opening of the way to Planillas, which was mainly reflected in the vegetation, wildlife and soil,” reads the Environmental Impacts Study carried out in 2008.
CFE signaling systemon the geothermal field. This sign is located 40 meters from the first well, marked as PR-13.
Jorge Gastón, activist and founder of Jalisco Ecological Collective, A.C., recalls the irreversible damage suffered by the forest during the intervention of the CFE. Large areas were transformed into gray, eroded and damaged soils. “The explorations were carried out in a very inadequate and inappropriate way; tremendous devastation was generated in the forest. When they drilled, they removed topsoil; with the emission of various gases into the atmosphere, they converted a wooded area, with peculiar characteristics and beauty, into a moonscape.”
After the devastation, the Jalisco Ecological Collective and other social movements formed several protests to cancel jobs in the forest, but the suspension came after a visit by the then president, Miguel de la Madrid, shortly before the end of his term. He planned an aerial tour of the Cerritos Colorados area, but as damage to the forest floor was so obvious, CFE staff painted the surface with green epoxy paint. The president noticed it, asked to be taken down to the surface, and after having reviewed the works, canceled the project, although this action took effect starting at the first year of term of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, recalls Gastón.
Geothermal structures still remain in the forest, some rusty with almost 30 years of age, which are guarded 24 hours a day by CFE personnel. The entrance to this area can be found off of Mariano Otero Avenue; the movement of vehicles is not permitted, but it is possible to arrive there by foot or bicycle after traveling 9.6 kilometers by a breach.
There, one can see enormous cylindrical shells of almost 20 meters in height, huge pipes and faucets, worn out concrete platforms, and some eroded soil. Since the geothermal exploration was suspended in 1989, and until 1996, the CFE executed several works of restoration and rehabilitation for the vegetation and soil, but, according to biologist Karina Aguilar Vizcaíno, not adequately enough.
The program of forest management points out that in the area of special exploitation, where Cerritos Colorados is, “the loss of vegetation range and soil degradation has been provoked, so an adequate management plan for this area in particular is urgent.”
General look of the PR-11 well, the only one with a pond where the concentration of gas is released.
Between 2008 and 2013, during the monitoring work of Knowledge Management and Wildlife of the Primavera, the team of biologists noticed several anomalies in animals living close to one of the geothermal wells that has a pond nearby where substances coming from the subsoil, such as hydrogen sulfide, have been deposited into, mentions Aguilar Vizcaíno.
“We began to see, through cameras and traps, that several animals had physical abnormalities; I am referring to not just birds, but also deer, large animals. In the camera, one could notice that they had something in their skin, some form of repercussion for having drunk the water, but we did not have the material, staff or budget to assess what type of affectation it was. However, if the animals had it, humans could also have it.”
Jorge Gastón remembers that before the suspension of the project, he toured the area. He noted that grass which was not natural to the place had been sown and that in some steep slopes “a moonscape could be perceived along with cacti which had been planted to retain erosion; we returned a few years ago to see how the area was rehabilitating, and we saw acceptable gardening work, but as you would walk to the edge of the platform, you could see the usual irreversible damage. That is greenwash, two-facedness.”
On July 22 of last year, during the Zero Geothermal Round call, the Secretary of Energy (Sener) delivered five geothermal exploitation concession titles to CFE, including Cerritos Colorados, located in the heart of the Primavera Forest. In the same process, the National Water Commission granted the cfe a concession of geothermal water for this field for a volume of four million 380 cubic meters per year, whose aquifer is Ameca, with a period of 30 years. In addition, at that time, Sener gave the CFE exploration permits for the area known as Planillas, also in the forest.
Now, with exploitation and exploration permits, the CFE has budgeted 285 million pesos, from an estimated nearly one billion, which requires the geothermal project in the Primavera. According to the Expenditure Budget of the Federation (PEF) 2016, 280 million pesos are for “carrying out evaluation studies of the potential of geothermal generation” in the area, and five million pesos for the transmission network of Cerritos Colorados in Phase I, which, according to PEF, will be for the “sub-transmission line that will interconnect with the existing circuit of 400 kilovolts, linking the Guadalajara I substation with the Sol substation in Zapopan.”
Detail of PR-11 well by which the concentration of gas is released.
The Planillas area is within the four forest protection cores, that is to say, in the area of greatest conservation of the Primavera, while Cerritos Colorados is within the area of special exploitation, which totals 448.9 hectares.
According to the Management Program of the Primavera— which was held in 2000 and has not been renewed, although national and international bodies recommend that is updated at least every five years— the area of special exploitation is “generally of a reduced area with the presence of natural resources that are essential for social development, and should be exploited without damaging the ecosystem, changing the landscape, or causing irreversible impacts on the natural elements that make it up.”
Jorge Gastón believes that the special exploitation area should not exist: instead, it should be a protected area that does not allow any type of geothermal work.
According to experts consulted, the CFE has not been clear or transparent in the development of Cerritos Colorados, nor has it publicly specified a critical path, but it has begun to dig back into the project, says the federal deputy Macedonio Tamez Guajardo, a member of the Energy Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, who asked the federal agency for its status of the project and received a terse reply.
“Currently, the CFE is developing the first stage of the project for the installation of a generating unit of 25 mw and its associated works, such as additional wells, vapor ducts, and a transmission line, all in order to take advantage of the existing geothermal resources for power generation,” reads the document signed by the manager of Institutional Relations of the CFE, Karina Elizabeth Rangel Juárez.
The OPD director of the Primavera, Marciano Valtierra, said that in November of last year, the CFE met with the scientific and citizen committees of the forest to present the project. There was no talk of the scope, or dates which the project is intended to launch, but there was emphasis on the fact that geothermal energy within the protected area would not add to the conservation and could even exacerbate the fragile state in which it is located.
The head of the OPD clarifies that the forest is a critical environmental regulator because it provides 35 percent of the water consumption of the zmg, and moreover, because it is a strategic ally. In “the context of climate change, it has been argued that the forest plays a regulatory role in these heat waves; it is an important carbon basin in terms of sequestering carbon dioxide done through photosynthesis and helping therefore, to reduce greenhouse gases.”
Despite the virtues that the forest offers tomore than four million people and the national and international declarations of protection, Sandra Valdés Valdés, founder of Anillo Primavera, an emerged organization of the Professional Application Project (PAP) of the Utilization and Conservation Contexts Heritage, the Department of Housing and Urban Development of ITESO (anilloprimavera.org), sees a bleak picture because, she underlines, this is a project promoted by the federal government:
"Nothing surpasses the energy reform; it protects the anp, but only in oil exploitation, nothing more. There is a decree that says that if it is in the interest of the nation, it can go over owners, ejidatarios, the ANP. This is a project that the federal government is pushing— it is a project that comes from Mexico; here, no one knows anything, no one can give us information.”
An interview with Magaly Flores Armenta, head of the Project Management of Geothermal Electricity of the CFE, was requested to know the scope of Cerritos Colorados, but she did not answer. However, in a document signed by the official[iv], the potential impacts that this project would have on the forest are recognized:
“Removal of vegetation during construction of access roads, platforms and sludge dams; soil disturbance by the displacement of materials during construction of roads and platforms; emissions of H2S (hydrogen sulfide) into the atmosphere during the operation of generating units and evaluation of geothermal wells; pollution of surface waters in the case of geothermal waste water pouring (brine) on surface water (streams, rivers).”
Geothermal exploration and exploitation also generates waste during the drilling stage, construction and operation; it would have a visual impact from the building of roads, platforms and generation units, noise emission during all stages of the project and “impact on species at risk due to the loss of their habitats during the removal of vegetation in the event that they were to be present.”
The honorary consul of Iceland in Mexico, Brad Donovan, who has advised geothermal energy projects from the extensive experience that his country has had in the field, defends explorations like Cerritos Colorados. He recognizes that the CFE has to amend to its mistakes of the past and that the interest of Iceland is not economic but for the purposes of advising the projects in Mexico to be clean.
“I feel we are on the same page, to protect, to correct past mistakes, and we will make the most out of the resource without damaging anything, the same way we have done in Iceland, with very strict environmental regulations. If the plant breaks out of the norm, it closes the same day; if something is not within the very strict environmental standards, it is immediately closed and will not open until the matter is settled. In Cerritos Colorados, hard work is already done; the work that requires more attention is how to involve the community,” notes Donovan.
Nevertheless, geothermal power plants in the country have already begun to have an impact. In Cerro Prieto, the second largest center of geothermal energy in the world, located in Mexicali, various social groups and farmers have complained that the CFE has failed to comply with the standards of health and safety for subsurface development and exploitation which has affected at least eight thousand hectares of farmland and caused environmental and health damages to residents of at least a dozen suburbs.
In San Pedro Lagunillas, Nayarit, three wells have been drilled with the intent to enable 18 more, but inhabitants of the region already complain of respiratory diseases, constant foul odors, and genetic deformations of the smaller than usual fish from the nearby pond; meanwhile, a study conducted for over three years by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in the Azufres plant in Michoacán has detected 117 earthquakes in the geothermal field.
For Tania Moreno, executive coordinator of the Chair of Biosphere Reserves University for International Cooperation in Costa Rica, geothermal energy projects in biosphere reserves should be viewed with caution. While UNESCO cannot make a statement against these actions, they ask that sites declared as Biosphere Reserves have self-evaluations conducted every ten years. The Primavera's turn is in 2016.
This diagnosis should discuss the risks and threats facing the forest and must be analyzed by a technical scientific committee of UNESCO, which subsequently makes recommendations.
“If the recommendations are not fulfilled, and after several warnings, the site enters a blacklist of Biosphere Reserves that have not complied, and international declaratory could be withdrawn,” warns Moreno.
Volcanic terrain in sulfur release, located at the foot of the PR-2 well, north of the CFE area.
In spite of its benefits to the environment, solar energy in Mexico is in its infancy.
“Developing a geothermal plant in the Primavera Forest would have many negative impacts; it would be much more logical to leave this type of energy where it is, to not conduct these kinds of projects, given that Jalisco is a state where solar energy can be taken advantage of, can create energy with other sources, without having to degrade the environment more so,” states Beatriz Olivera, UNAM academic and expert in renewable energy and the environment.
The specialist, who has been a consultant to Greenpeace, says that Mexico has great solar potential, but it has not been a priority in the country's energy policy.
“We have much more potential for solar energy, and I would have seen it more logical if there was a solar energy law, including wind power, which also has great potential. We are the richest in the world. For a geothermal energy law to have suddenly emerged has left many of us thinking: Where do the interests who regulate this type of energy come from?”, she reflects.
The development of geothermal energy has been opened to private capital investment: There are multi-billion peso companies like Dragon group involved in geothermal development in the country when solar energy has a potential radiation average of 5 kilovolts / hour per meter square per day in the country, which is higher than in Spain or Germany, but in Mexico, programs to boost these resources have barely been developed, adds the UNAM academic.
“The German Agency for Technical Cooperation conducted a study a couple of years ago in which they said that if 625 square kilometers of photovoltaic panels are matched in Sonora or Chihuahua, which is reached to boost up to 6 kilovolts / hour per square meter per day, it could supply electricity to the entire country. That speaks of the enormous potential of other energy sources that are not being viewed with due seriousness,” says Olivera. m.
Translated by Hanna Niklewicz
Map of the Federal Electricity Commission geothermal wells.