Future Tense

A Massive Blackout Shows Why Mexico Needs to Update Its Energy Policy

A table containing jugs of water, a radio, playing cards, a candle, two flashlights and a lantern during a blackout.
JulNichols/E+ via Getty Images Plus

“We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out.” Those words were part of the intro of the 2012 TV series Revolution, which presented a hypothetical scenario of what would the modern world be like if electricity suddenly disappeared. The show lasted for two seasons, and then it went out like a light—largely forgotten.

But I remembered Revolution on Dec. 28, when more than 10 million Mexicans, almost 8 percent of the country’s total population, experienced a world without electricity firsthand as a massive blackout occurred in different cities throughout the country. It lasted almost two hours, long enough for citizens to experience disruptions to subway services, dangerous roads because of the lack of working streetlights, interruptions to water service, and a general disconnection from all existing telecommunications’ networks. (Luckily, I wasn’t in one of the affected areas.) Since then, the country has found itself in the midst of a heated debate about “how” the blackout happened—and how to keep it from happening again.

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Mexico’s National Electrical System depends on one single national grid that crosses the entire country and supplies all states––except for Baja California, whose system is linked to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, in the United States. Almost all the power plants run on fossil fuels, which provide a continuous source of energy, while renewable energies’ output can vary based on conditions. (If the sun doesn’t shine or wind doesn’t blow, that can reduce how much solar or wind energy is produced.)

After the blackout, the National Center for Energy Control, known as CENACE for its initials in Spanish, explained that a power unbalance between the electrical load and generation had caused a loss of approximately 7,500 megawatts of energy. But the Federal Commission of Electricity—which is known as CFE for its initials in Spanish––gave different and contradictory explanations for exactly how this happened.

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First, it presented a document from the civil protection office in the state of Tamaulipas that stated the power imbalance had been caused by a fire that affected two transmission lines. But Pedro Granados, the coordinator of civil protection of Tamaulipas, denied that his office had drafted the document. The CFE then confirmed that, in fact, the document was fake. Facing a credibility crisis for having presented a false document, the CFE opened an investigation to figure out what happened with the document.

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The CFE also changed course and began blaming the intermittency of renewable energies for the blackout. Then, it announced a plan to take out of operation some of the renewable energy plants connected to the system, to ensure its reliability. However, experts say that these measures will set back the country in its environmental goals—and that they have more to do with political interests than with what’s best for the citizens.

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To understand this all, we need to take a little trip back in time.

For many years, the country’s energy system was controlled entirely by the CFE, which held a monopoly on the generation and delivery of electricity. Basically, it owned most of the energy plants that supplied the electricity it later distributed to the end users. But when Enrique Peña Nieto was elected president in 2012, he had other plans. At the beginning of 2013, his government approved the so-called Energy Reform plan to open the Mexican energy sector to private investment. Peña Nieto said it was necessary because the state-run system was unable to generate all of the electricity of the country without outside funding.

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In the long run, this was also supposed to help with the transition to renewable energies, since that technology is mostly financed by private companies. The ultimate promise was that, by increasing energy competitiveness and energy sources, electricity rates would drop.

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However, when Peña Nieto’s administration ended in 2018, the initiative had little to show for it—in fact, electricity rates had gone up. The reasons for this were varied and complex. To begin with, transitioning to a fully functioning decentralized system is difficult. The first projects resulting from this reform were only beginning to operate in 2018, according to Leopoldo Rodríguez, president of the Mexican Wind Energy Association. So naturally, fossil fuel plants were still central to the grid. But when fossil fuel prices began to go up in 2016, so did electricity prices, according to the Sener—the government office in charge of the administration and regulation of the country’s energy resources.

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Apart from this, it’s impossible to review the Energy Reform and leave corruption and political interests aside. Under the Energy Reform, companies that wished to enter the energy market had to participate in electricity auctions, organized by CENACE. Simply put, the electricity suppliers––still mostly owned by the CFE––announced a demand for electricity, and all interested companies, including the renewable energy ones, competed in an auction to meet the demand at the most competitive price. On paper, everything looked good. But thanks to the federal and local governments, an administrative tar pit made it extremely difficult for the private investors to build their energy plants. By 2018, only one of the 49 solar and wind energy plants that got contracts in the first three electricity auctions had begun to operate. Even when the laws to punish corruption exist, they are not enforced, which takes us back to the present.

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The rise in electricity and gas prices, the uncertainty that the private investors faced in front of a government that hindered the development of their projects, the fact that CFE continued to control most of the electricity market in Mexico, and the overall corruption of the energy sector—together, it all made it seem that the changes proposed by Peña Nieto’s administration had been ineffective and a political ruse.

These shortcomings of the Energy Reform were key to the political campaign of the current Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. A populist candidate, he promised to stop the “corrupt” energy exploitation by the private sector, both national and international, and to give back to the state the control over the country’s energy industry. Since then, his administration seems to have declared an open war against private investors and has prioritized fossil fuels over renewable energies because “even as research on other energy sources continues, the development of the world economy will continue to be based on hydrocarbons for several decades,” he said.

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This type of thinking is unsustainable in a world that is suffering the consequences of climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels. Mexico is one of the 15 countries that emit the most carbon dioxide in the world, and the energy sector represents more than two-thirds of the country’s total gross emissions. And taking the climate impact aside, will Mexico’s fossil fuels–dependent electrical system survive in a world that is gradually

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depleting its oil reserves?

Keeping a centralized, fossil fuel–dependent energy system doesn’t make sense. As Andrea Marín, director of the advisory firm Energy BY5, pointed out, the costs of renewable energies are more competitive than ever. “We see these technologies positioning themselves not only as the cleanest and most sustainable, the ones with no carbon dioxide emissions, but also as the cheapest. Today it makes sense to buy clean energy from a financial perspective.”

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At first sight, it might sound crazy to compare a two-hour blackout to the world portrayed in Revolution, where chaos reigned as the government collapsed and militias took over. But maybe it’s not so far-fetched.

To date, Mexican experts are both intrigued and surprised that a simple unbalance or “fire” could be responsible for a national blackout. They explained that the system has protocols to deal with these type of power imbalances. When they happen, the engineers can regulate the flow of energy in the transmission lines. Also, the system has network protectors––devices used in electricity distribution systems to isolate any fault with the energy supply and keep the service going. According to Paul Alejandro Sánchez, Ph.D. in public policy and an expert in the energy sector, the biggest question that hasn’t been answered yet is: Was the magnitude of this technical event so big that it exceeded human capacity, or was it just a human capacity deficit that could not cope with a normal technical problem?

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Is the system that fragile? And, if so, aren’t this type of malfunctions bound to happen again? How can the government ensure our energy security under these circumstances and also uphold its promises of generating 35 percent of the country’s energy from clean sources by 2024, and up to 50 percent by 2050?

The CFE seems unable to answer these questions. Yet its operating budget will be reduced 8.6 percent in 2021, and the current government won’t allow anyone else to carry the burden of lighting up the entire country.

Yet, in the midst of all the darkness and uncertainty, there is a glowing fact: The blackout was a warning that the Mexican government needs to start rethinking its energy policies if we are to keep the country plugged in to the 21st century. Until then, we may as well start buying candles and conducting drills for future blackouts.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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