Pioneers of the Mexican SectorWed, 02/19/2014 - 15:06
When three academic researchers decided to create BUTECSA almost 35 years ago, the Mexican solar industry was a distant dream. The three were working at UNAM’s Department of Solar Energy and had completed many successful projects, including the creation of the first test bank for solar heaters in the country in 1979. In the early 1980s, the group had to choose between their research careers or BUTECSA. It was not an easy choice since conditions back then did not favor renewable energy sources. “Fossil fuels were very cheap in Mexico and there was no concern for the environment,” recalls Rodolfo Martínez Strevel, Director General of BUTECSA.
The company reached an important milestone in 1985 when it was hired by INFONAVIT (National Housing Fund for Workers) to elaborate bioclimatic design norms for low-cost housing. BUTECSA made recommendations for housing in hot and humid climates in places like Villahermosa, for colder places like Toluca, and hot and dry areas such as Hermosillo or Mexicali. This project opened the consulting door for the company, which spent much of the late 20th century advising NGOs and government agencies, while carrying out early PV projects. “We did projects in which we invited researchers from every academic institution in the country who were involved in renewable energy sources at the time,” Martínez says. Nowadays, BUTECSA is an industry leader in solar thermal energy. The company has been working in hotels and hospitals for eight years now, installing systems that range from 2,000 liters to 30,000 liters of hot water per day. The growth of thermal energy systems has a lot to do with return on investment becoming quicker since the 1990s, moving from an 8-10 year period to just 3-5 years. Additionally, the impact on the environment has become a matter of greater concern. Recent legislation particularly in Mexico City, is making companies check their carbon emissions, with solar heaters being a way to mitigate these emissions and reduce operational costs.
The current Mexican solar industry is a far cry from BUTECSA’s early days. Over the past three years, a number of companies have entered the market, many of which offer low prices. However, Martínez is quick to point out that most of these product providers are not certified, saying “price is important, but it is not the only thing to consider.”
BUTECSA’s strategy focuses on offering quality products, which does not necessarily translate into providing the cheapest solution. Martínez underlines that the company’s staying power in the market over 33 years is down to its long-term solar energy solutions. These satisfy customers and show the need for certified products, he says. Another aspect BUTECSA considers as vital is personnel training, which it offers to many companies in the solar thermal sector. The idea goes that as great as a product may be, it will not work if it is not installed properly. “Personnel training, certified products, experience and innovation. Those are the key components driven by BUTECSA and we are willing to establish strategic alliances with any company that will strengthen these components through technological or economic resources,” he adds.
Martínez also served as president of ANES in 2006-2008. During his period at the association, ANES was invited to advise INFONAVIT on its Green Mortgage program, which encourages solar heating, energy-saving light bulbs, on-grid PV systems, and thermal insulating systems to be installed in low-cost housing. ANES also worked on the legislation and norms that enabled energy sources to be connected to the grid. “This period was crucial in developing a regulatory framework which did not exist before and was a way of fostering renewable resources. It also served for the development of programs such as Green Mortgage, which had a positive impact on the Mexican solar industry,” Martínez mentions. The 2007 shift in the legal framework compelled BUTECSA to change the focus of its business strategy from rural communities and pool heating systems to on-grid systems, covering residential, commercial and industrial needs. Because of its founders’ backgrounds, BUTECSA remains on a constant search for innovation. Martínez claims that research is as important to the company as carrying out projects. This is the reason why the company’s project portfolio lists successes in installing anti-freezing systems on PV cells, indirect heating systems and panels with amorphous silicon in thin sheets, among many others. “We have received awards for our innovations in engineering and design, which supports our quest to find new ways of doing things,” he adds. It might be some time before the Mexican solar industry booms, but from Martínez’s perspective, the future of renewable energy is shining bright and will do so even more once the necessary public policies are implemented. In the meantime, BUTECSA is preparing itself and reaching for the right international partners. “Few Mexican companies have experience installing solar energy systems amounting to megawatts, but we have allies with that experience that will give us the right knowledge when the time comes,” Martínez concludes.