Novel solution lets utility boost power
Building cleaner kilns in Mexico may help El Paso air quality
By RICARDO SANDOVAL / The Dallas Morning News
CIUDAD JUÁREZ – El Paso Electric Co. faced an air-pollution predicament in 1999: Spend big money – ratepayers' money – for an upgrade of exhaust systems at three older power generators, or do nothing and risk falling behind energy demand along the West Texas border with Mexico.
Air quality in El Paso does not meet federal clean-air standards. To make matters worse for the utility, the state had mandated a 50 percent reduction in the nitrogen oxide emitted by El Paso Electric's generating facilities when it deregulated the market in 1999.
El Paso did modify some of its older plants.
But it also found a novel, less expensive solution south of the border, in this busy city of 2 million. The company began to systematically replace brick kilns in the city of Juárez – a significant source of the pollution that counts against El Paso on U.S. environmental scorecards.
By the end of the project, El Paso Electric will have replaced 60 of the dirty kilns – at no cost to the brick makers of Juárez.
Total cost to the utility: About $500,000 – a small sum when compared with pricey plant upgrades and the stigma of being labeled as a community with unhealthy air.
The brick project now holds the promise of long-term benefits for El Paso Electric and the state. If the company can reduce local air pollution – regardless of the source – Texas air quality officials predict such cross-border pollution credit swaps may emerge as an answer to border contamination problems.
Texas officials recently signed a pact with Mexican environmental regulators to study common pollution control policies along the border.
The brick project may also hold long-term implications for El Paso's business community: Cleaner air could help bring industry to the area. Today, businesses find it difficult to look at El Paso for expansion or relocation, because even lightly polluting industries can aggravate the region's air-quality troubles.
In fact, the community lost a bid to San Antonio last year to become home to a new Toyota Motors facility. El Paso Electric officials said Toyota's inability to convince regulators to allow it to swap air-pollution credits contributed to the company's decision to choose San Antonio.
Under the brick-pollution swap plan, El Paso Electric gets air-pollution credits by reducing overall contamination in the region and a higher pollution allowance for its older power facilities.
The credit offsets pollution from three generators that would otherwise need more significant overhauls. And by operating its own plants as close as possible to their capacity, El Paso Electric avoids having to buy power from the outside sources.
Texas officials view the El Paso Electric project as good for the region's overall air quality. The project recently won a state award for innovations in environmental protection.
"The net benefit, everyone has seen, is that pollution is down overall in the El Paso region," said Ralph Marquez of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "The result is you get a bigger bang for your buck when you can execute these kinds of swaps, instead of having to address pollution the traditional way of shutting down old facilities that might still have a useful life."
El Paso Electric can use the good fiscal news. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 1996, and the utility is still smarting over accusations it took part in profiteering that fueled California's electricity price crisis a few years ago. The company settled with the state of California in 2002, paying out $15.5 million.
"Everyone wins," said Luis Ito, El Paso Electric's director of environmental health and safety. "We save money, the brick makers save money, the air is cleaner, and maybe we can find a way to solve pollution problems that don't respect international borders. El Paso would be in compliance with federal air standards were it not for Juárez."
While El Paso Electric officials and state regulators ponder the long-term benefits of the brick-oven project, a more humble group of businesses in this Mexican border city is already reaping rewards: Brick makers – never a prosperous bunch – get free ovens that are more productive and cheaper to operate.
"In the old days we could not prepare our bricks in the rain, or in the wind, because the old ovens were just open pits, exposed to the elements," said Enrique Chavez, a Juárez brick maker. "So we can operate more during the year and use half the fuel – half the wood – we used to burn to get a load of bricks."
Mr. Chavez helped build the first of the new ovens three years ago, and now operates three of his own.
The efficient ovens resemble twin oversized adobe chimneys with rounded, sealed tops. They were designed by researchers at New Mexico State University as a low-tech, low-cost way to reduce the public health problems posed by Third World brick operations.
Gritty soot from wood, tires – whatever combustible material brick makers could get their hands on – traditionally went skyward from the open brick pits that dotted several Juárez neighborhoods.
Inside the new ovens, the thick soot is recycled: wet bricks are stacked in one oven. And smoke that used to escape through the chimney is now forced through a duct into the neighboring oven and trapped in old, porous bricks. The process is then reversed, and the soot is reignited, becoming part of the new fuel source for another stack of fresh bricks.
Mr. Chavez, a burly, lifelong brick maker with calloused hands and soot-encrusted fingernails, has become so adept at building and running the new ovens that he's been invited to assist in similar projects scheduled in Guatemala and India.
Bricks are the building material of choice in Mexico, especially in arid areas where wood for construction is rare. In a growing city like Juárez, demand is high, and the average conventional kiln generates about $3,000 for each load of bricks.
Since the new brick ovens caught on, city officials are contemplating helping the industry build even more, only this time concentrated in an unpopulated site south of the city.
The state of Chihuahua is also working to replace similar ovens outside of Juárez.
Though most Juárez brick makers are supportive of the move, some are concerned about being forced to uproot family business they've established near their homes. They're also concerned no one will take up the project once El Paso Electric reaches its quota of ovens. The ovens cost around $8,000 to build, high enough to scare off most brick makers if they had to pick up the entire bill. There are about 450 brick kilns in Juárez.
"I'm also disappointed that the ovens are smaller than what we had before. With my old ways, I could produce up to 18,000 bricks. With these I can only do half of that," said David Rios Quintana, another Juárez brick producer. "But these are easier to stack, and they are cleaner. That's important. I just hope that if they force us all to move, they will build larger ovens to convince others that this can work for everyone."