Mexico looks to giant solar park in the desert to assuage carbon concerns

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By Stefanie Eschenbacher

PUERTO PENASCO, Mexico, Feb 2 (Reuters) -The first power from a giant solar energy park in the desert of northern Mexico will enter the country's electricity grid in April, officials said on Thursday, as the nation aims to burnish its green credentials with the flagship project.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has hailed the $1.6 billion project - set to be Latin America's largest solar park - as key to reaching Mexico's goal of producing at least 35% of all energy consumed from clean and renewable sources by 2024.

But environmentalists and the oppositionhave dismissed the project, known as Plan Sonora after the state where it is located, as a sideshow distracting from a retrograde nationalist energy policy that has prioritized state company CFE and its highly polluting power plants.

Lopez Obrador's energy policy has also triggered a formal trade dispute with the United States and Canada, who allege Mexico breached their North American trade pact by tightening state control of its energy market and prejudicing foreign companies.

Mexican officials on Thursday, during a tour of the solar park with a group of over 60 foreign diplomats, sought to dampenconcerns over Lopez Obrador's commitment to renewables and energy transition.

"Sonora is going to be reference point for what (sustainable) development should look like," Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in a presentation after the tour.

"We want to invite all the countries of the world to be part of that," he added.

Mexico is looking for partners to help fund the park and the country's broader transition to greener energy sources.Lopez Obrador has said that the U.S. could potentially help finance construction in Sonora.

State electricity utility CFE is tasked with developing the project and expects it to be fully operational by 2027, with over two million solar panels providing electricity to Sonora and Baja California.

So far only a tenth of the panels have been put up. They stand in the desert sand in perfect regiment. Wires tangle from the panels, which have not yet been connected to the grid.

Although scientists rank Mexico as one of the places in the world with most solar potential, progress on renewables has been slow under Lopez Obrador.

The president, a leftist nationalist, has largely focused on upping fossil fuel exploration and production - as well as refining - at state oil company Pemex.

Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific project that tracks government climate action, still rates Mexico's climate policies as "critically insufficient" in meeting targets - and predicts that emissions will continue to rise through 2030.

Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher in Puerto Penasco, Mexico
Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Alistair Bell


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