Mexico Life
A capped steam well and silencer at Campo Geotérmico Cerritos Colorados in Jalisco. A capped steam well and silencer at Campo Geotérmico Cerritos Colorados in Jalisco.

Guadalajara’s abandoned geothermal project set to be reactivated

The 1970s project caused extensive environmental damage and was canceled

Many years ago, deep inside the most primitive part of the huge Primavera Forest, which lies just west of Guadalajara, I came upon a network of beautifully paved roads which meandered over rolling hills covered with pine trees, while skirting the deep, jagged canyons so typical of this forest.

Picture-perfect streets leading nowhere are not what you’d expect to find deep inside the woods and I had the impression I had just entered a country club or a well-to-do condominium, except for the fact that there were no houses to be seen anywhere and no people either, only an awesome silence which seemed to say, “Here abide only ghosts — and you are not welcome!”

I said there were no people to be seen in this place, but while cruising about and thoroughly enjoying the unusual sensation of driving on a surface free of potholes, I came upon a solitary human being.

His name was Fernando and he welcomed me as if he had grown tired of the company of ghosts. He also informed me that I was tooling about the private property of the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE). To my surprise, I learned that he was the watchman for this “Ghost Park,” but that he also acted as a guide for occasional visitors. A combination watchman and tour guide? Only in Mexico!

!Bienvenido a Campo Geotérmico Cerritos Colorados!” said Fernando, explaining that this was a geothermal project that was supposed to be using steam to generate electricity for Guadalajara.

“Smelly lake” created by condensed steam.
“Smelly lake” created by condensed steam.

I learned that the project had started in the late 1970s. “Between 1980 and 1989,” continued Fernando, “they drilled 13 steam wells here to tap the geothermal activity deep down below. They even received help from the United Nations because the object was to produce ‘clean’ electricity that would cause no pollution.”

Stage one of the project was to have generated 25 megawatts of power per hour, enough to supply the electrical needs of 7% of Greater Guadalajara.

Fernando led me to Well No. 9, a big “Christmas Tree” of fat pipes ornamented with enormous valves and fittings. He told me that the CFE had drilled down nearly two kilometers to reach the magma deep underneath and then showed me a pressure gauge reading 1,500 psi. Just what kind of power this represented was dramatically illustrated by a tiny tube less than a half-inch in diameter which tapped the main pipe and allowed a little steam to escape into a barrel several meters away.

This roaring blast of vapor was so hot you’d never be able to get close enough to it to steam an elote (ear of corn) and so loud it could drown out the noisiest ranchero radio station. And I won’t even mention what its sulfurous “bouquet” reminded me of.

I needed little imagination to figure what the result would be if the main valve of the big pipe were ever opened wide. This, explained Fernando, was why there was a large cylinder, resembling a giant yellow tin can, next to each capped well. “That’s a kind of mofle [muffler],” he said, “to keep down the noise.” He didn’t mention whether this silencer would do anything for the smell.

It seemed curious to me that the CFE had spent humongous amounts of money on a project which had never generated a single watt of power, but only upon my return home did I discover “the dark side” of the Cerritos Colorados project.

Fumarole located just north of the Cerritos Colorados camp.
Fumarole located just north of the Cerritos Colorados camp.

According to Jorge Gastón, founder of Colectivo Ecologista Jalisco, the CFE irreversibly damaged the pristine pine and oak forest while they built their network of roads and drilled their steam wells. “They carried out their explorations in an irresponsible and ill-considered way and wreaked havoc in the woods. Wherever they drilled, they simply scraped away the entire layer of topsoil, turning an extraordinarily beautiful forest into a lunar landscape.”

Environmental activists in Jalisco had only to point to the devastation caused by the CFE in neighboring Michoacán when they created the steam wells at their well-known Planta Geotérmica Los Azufres site.

Now it just happened that, in 1988, the president of Mexico, Miguel de la Madrid, made a visit to Guadalajara and his itinerary included flying over the Cerritos Colorados area. Gastón recalls that the CFE personnel were so worried about what might happen that they actually went out into the woods and painted the denuded, rocky surfaces with a green epoxy. El Presidente, however, was not fooled and even landed to take a closer look.

Whether de la Madrid got green epoxy on his shoes, we are not told, but the fact that he had caught the CFE in flagrante delicto resulted in the cancellation of the project during the first year of Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s mandate.

Once the project was halted, environmentalists worked for years to undo the damage to the forest, laying sod, building dikes and planting thousands of trees.

When they had finished, silence returned to Cerritos Colorados and it became even more of a ghost park than before because it was now designated “out of bounds” to motorists. Only passing bicycle riders would stop to observe the little jet of steam still hissing out of Well No. 9 and then cycle on to admire a few natural fumaroles which still sputter away at the northern edge of the Ghost Park.

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That silence may soon be broken. Last week Guadalajara’s Instituto Metropolitano de Planeación reported that the CFE has been awarded 566.7 million pesos toward reactivating the Cerritos Colorados project. It now has a green light to explore and exploit the area during the next 30 years.

While many local conservationists lament this development, others point out that great strides have been made, all around the world, for producing electricity from steam wells without harming the environment. According to a United Nations University report on geothermal and the environment, “the use of geothermal energy has low environmental impact, particularly when compared with fossil fuels.”

That may be true, but if they ever open all 13 of those giant steam valves, mofles or not, I’m quite sure the one thing you will no longer be able to enjoy in the Cerritos Colorados part of the Primavera Forest will be the sound of silence.

The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.

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