Cross-Border Energy Deal Could Spread Across Entire Mexican Border

March 06, 2017
Michel Marizco
Barbara Stockwell outside the Sasabe Store in Sasabe, Ariz. She's on Trico's board of directors.
Michel Marizco
Juan Federico owns the Hidden Second Hand Shop in Sasabe, Sonora.
Michel Marizco
The burned out remnant of Sasabe, Sonora's only attempt at a gas station.
Michel Marizco
Sasabe, Mexico's first power pole feeding off Trico's electrical grid, just across the border barricade.

The story of a cross-border energy plan here at the edge of the sweeping green downslopes of the Baboquivari Mountains and the United States, starts a century ago with an old cowboy’s dream, a long dirt road and a general store.

Deborah Grider runs the Sasabe Store. It’s the last U.S. outpost before Mexico which lies a quarter mile away.

“We’ve had this probably since 1920. That’s when it was built. My grandfather built this building,” she said.

He had big dreams for this small town and for its neighbor across the border, Sasabe, Sonora. Back then, Sasabe in Mexico was known as Mezquite for its forests of trees. It’s a virtual island town whose only physical connection to the rest of Mexico is a pair of old roads, one leading up into the mountains and one leading 65 miles into mexico itself. These are old smuggler roads now but had bigger aspirations in 1920.

“His dream was to get the road paved so people could go to the beach. Desomboque and Puerto Lobos. That way people could come through here instead of going through Nogales because it was less traffic,” Grider said.

Those beach destinations Desomboque and Puerto Lobos on the Sea of Cortez are still there but the plans to turn this town into a beach drive destination settled like the dust on that empty road.

Still, Sasabe, Mexico needed electricity and still does. Mexico’s federal energy grid doesn’t reach here. So since 1963, Arizona’s electric co-op Trico started running power down, using infrastructure on the Arizona side of the border, then up and over the border wall to a power line on the Mexican side, one of the few areas along the line where electricity infrastructure is shared by both countries.

Barbara Stockwell moved to nearby Arivaca in the 1950s, and she’s on Trico’s board of directors.

“I remember it so well. It was just very exciting to be part of that. It’s history, it’s history that’s almost gone. We’re totally electrified. We even have our very own small local internet service there in arivaca. We have internet, we have all these communications that we never had before.”

Now, that’s the U.S. side. Sasabe, Sonora, is a few thousand people, an Army garrison surrounded with a sparse dying lawn, a burned out remnant of what was once a gas station and an abandoned town center with crumbling hotels, the metal structures of the town plaza rusting in the desert. Rather than that beach destination Grider’s grandfather envisioned, Sasabe dried up as would-be immigrants are shuttled away from the Border Patrol’s tough infrastructure around the port and into a harder and more desolate desert.

At the Hidden Second Hand Shop Juan Federico used to sell used clothing to migrants before business dried up.

Federico said he earns $10 a day and pays one hundred dollars a month in electricity. But he says he understands the situation because Sasabe doesn’t have a choice or even a gas station. Here, border crossing card holders drive to Grider’s general store and fill up.

The deal for powering Sasabe is a project that investors and consultants are watching.

“If you see the other kinds of energy projects, they’re mostly for large manufacturing operations,” said Jonathan Pinzón, an energy and infrastructure consultant in Mexico City.

“In this case, it’s really small, it’s just there. It’s really under the radar but for me it’s a good example of things that happen at the national level that don't usually get much attention in our capital cities in both our countries," Pinzón said.

Among those, at a recent energy summit in Hermosillo, Sonora, the federal government of Mexico announced it wants to build more energy lines connecting the countries six border states by 2032 and it’s moving quickly. Bids for doing so will be accepted within two years. It’s also considering a 150-megawatt cross-border connection in Nogales Mexico.

What wasn’t discussed: recent trade tensions between Mexico and President Donald Trump’s administration and whether those will impact federal government permissions that are needed to run those wires over the border wall.