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News Article

1GW Solar Plant Part of Sonora’s Grand Energy Transition Plans

By Cas Biekmann | Wed, 09/01/2021 - 11:52

Sonora is gearing up to become a crucial cog in Mexico’s energy transition. Aiming to make good use of its brilliant solar radiation, the state wants to wean itself off natural gas imports through a much-discussed 1GW solar project. The project is expected to not only benefit Sonora but the grid-isolated Baja California peninsula.

“Sonora has a strong dependence on outside energy sources,” said Rafael Cabanillas, a researcher at the University of Sonora (Unison) and a member of the newly elected state government’s ‘Transition Team’ on energy and sustainable development issues. “There is still a long way toward self-sufficiency to supply the state’s industry. Yet, our yearly solar radiation is among the highest around the world.”

With a population of close to 3 million and a surface stretching past 179km2, the Northern Mexican state of Sonora uses quite a lot of energy for its residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural activities. The state’s thermometers often show figures higher than 35°C in the summer months, which means that a decent quality of life makes energy-intensive cooling processes essential. Unfortunately, this makes energy costs rise rapidly. Around 4,488 kWh are consumed annually by Sonoran homes on average, more than four times the consumption of a home in Mexico City. Almost 5 percent of the nation’s energy use is consumed in Sonora. To make prices bearable, the federal government needs to heavily subsidize energy rates.

Sonora is mostly reliant on imports to produce the power it needs. Cabanillas explained that most of the electricity consumed in Sonora is generated by burning dry natural gas imported from the US. “Sonora has an index of 0.18 in terms of energy independence when looking at figures from 2017. The national index is at 0.76,” he stated. The price of imported gas is less of an issue: “Imports are not an issue of cost, as importing dry gas from the US is quite cheap, but of energy independence, which the federal government values, too,” emphasized Cabanillas. Mexico’s pipeline infrastructure is expanded constantly as testament of the benefits of low-cost natural gas.

Still, this dependency can cause problems. The fact that Sonora is reliant on imports means that the state is vulnerable to the conditions in Texas, as seen during a winter storm that halted gas production in February. When exports were halted, Mexico’s energy mix took a hit.  Sonora, however, has access to another important energy source: solar. The state’s Direct Normal Irradiance lies between 6.26 and 7.89 Kwh/m2 per day. Using only a fraction of the Sonoran Desert, the state could generate more energy than Mexico needs in its entirety. Private companies, attracted to the Mexican market after the 2014 Energy Reform, already benefit from this excellent irradiance. Companies such as Iberdrola, IEnova, Engie, Acciona and X-Elio all have photovoltaic solar parks in various places across the state.

Newly elected governor of Sonora, Alfonso Durazo, knows the potential solar energy brings to the state, as well. Enjoying a good relationship with President Andres Manuel López Obrador, Durazo has been tasked to make Sonora a key state for Mexico’s clean energy transition. “López Obrador asked Durazo to ensure Sonora would spearhead a solar-based pilot project, which would boost renewable energy generation. This move also disproved rumors that the government was against renewable energy,” said Cabanillas.

At the heart of Sonora’s solar mission lies the notorious Puerto Peñasco project. With a titanic 1GW capacity, the project would be among the world’s 10 largest solar power plants and the largest in Latin America. It will feature a 100MW battery storage addition, too. Sharing the load of the predicted US$1.685 to US$2 billion investment, state utility CFE is to own 56 percent of Puerto Peñasco, while a newly formed Sonoran state company would own 46 percent. Cabanillas described the project as a “home run” for the state’s sustainable development initiative. Sonora’s state-owned company opens a range of interesting possibilities, too, although Cabanillas points out that the full scope of what Sonora can do with this company remains to be defined.

The benefits of Puerto Peñasco go beyond Sonora. In fact, the state of Baja California perhaps stands to gain the most because the project will be paramount in interconnecting the heretofore electrically isolated northern part of the peninsula. Baja California Sur would also be connected to this local grid through a submarine 400kV transmission line.

To make these landmark projects a success, Sonora aims to improve the legal framework on which it bases its energy transition. The state’s energy commission needs reinforcing and the state company to be involved in the solar project needs to be founded. Puerto Peñasco will not be Sonora’s only focus. The state plans to promote Sonora in the energy sector via the construction of further solar projects, boosting electric and hybrid vehicles, biofuel use, distributed generation (DG), cogeneration, wind energy and much more. Forty DG solar projects, each 0.5MW, will bring 20MW of capacity at a cost of US$20 million. Ann additional 20MW wind farm will require US$22 million, according to Cabanillas.

Cas Biekmann Cas Biekmann Journalist and Industry Analyst