As California’s utilities face the deadline to produce one-third of their power from renewable sources by 2020, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is tapping into one of the strongest wind resources on the West Coast: the Sierra de Juárez mountain range in Baja California, Mexico.

The more than 155 MW Energía Sierra Juárez (ESJ) wind farm, which began commercial operation early last year, is the first cross-border wind farm between Mexico and the United States. Power generated from the 47 wind turbines in Tecate, Baja California, is purchased and used by SDG&E to supply electricity to approximately 65,000 homes and businesses in San Diego County.

The wind farm is owned and operated by a 50-50 partnership between InterGen and Infraestructura Energetica Nova (IEnova), the Mexico-based subsidiary of Sempra Energy, a San Diego-based energy holding company.

New Renewable Energy Options for U.S. Utilities

Although other wind farms straddle the U.S.-Mexico border running from California to Texas, none supply electricity to customers on the other side of the international border. Because of this, the ESJ wind farm project is pioneering new renewable energy options for the United States.

As the availability of tax incentives for wind power becomes less dependable in the U.S., and with Mexico’s conducive regulatory environment, Mexico may become a more viable option for American utilities planning for the future of wind-power construction.

A Boon to the Mexican Economy

The 13,100-acre first phase has already provided both short-term construction jobs and long-term lease payments to the area’s land owners, who previously had reaped little financial benefit from the harsh landscape. ESJ’s $300 million construction process employed nearly 650 workers during the peak building stages.

In addition to the main turbines, a 4.8-mile transmission line was erected to deliver power to the U.S. If fully built out as originally proposed, ESJ will generate up to 1,250 MW of energy — enough to power half a million homes and businesses in San Diego County. The entire wind farm development is also expected to contribute nearly $750 million back to the local economy and create more than 400 permanent jobs.

A Challenging Environmental and Political Landscape

As with many international projects, the ESJ wind project faced a number of challenges, ranging from siting issues in the area’s mountainous terrain to coordinating with agencies in multiple states and counties. There was also the daunting task of transporting major wind turbine and transmission equipment from the U.S. into Mexico for the first time.

Typically, it takes about four years to fully develop and construct a major wind farm, but faced with an onslaught of unique challenges, the timeline for completing the ESJ project nearly doubled.

Originally started by another developer in 2006, ESJ was ultimately bought by Sempra two years later. After realizing the magnitude of the challenges at hand, Sempra made the decision to bring Burns & McDonnell on as its owner’s engineer to help with development support, environmental permitting services, engineering and construction support.

In our role as owner’s engineer, we also provided support for turbine micro-siting, preliminary design, wind resource assessments, noise studies, commercial negotiation support, detailed engineering reviews, financing support, on-site construction monitoring and much more.

A Powerful Future

The initial phase of the ESJ project is already off to a booming start. The project is actively delivering clean, renewable — and affordable — power to Southern California, and is expected to continue doing so for decades to come. While California has made a major push for more renewable energy, further expansion will likely depend on Mexican utilities becoming larger customers.

Our team has supported the development, design and construction of more than 200 wind projects across North America, covering a total capacity of more than 50,000 MW. As wind projects advance into increasingly complex environments, we’ll continue to utilize our rich industry experience to minimize challenges and establish long-standing success for projects like ESJ.

While ESJ was a first-of-its-kind project, it certainly won’t be the last. If you’d like to learn more about the opportunities and challenges of international power projects, let’s talk about the potential that’s out there — feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

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Aaron Anderson is a Senior Mechanical Engineer and Project Manager in Burns & McDonnell’s Renewable Energy Group. He specializes in financial and engineering analyses of renewable energy projects, and has directly supported more than 20 GW of power generation projects, including more than 15 GW of renewable energy development.