Power Play

Background:

The Mexican constitution of February 5, 1917 (amended 130 times) requires that the electricity sector be federally owned, with the Federal Electricity Commission (Comisión Federal de Electrícidad, or CFE), effectively controlling the whole electrical sector in Mexico. CFE holds a near-monopoly on a power grid consisting of 27,000 miles of high voltage lines, 28,000 miles of medium lines and 370,000 miles of low voltage lines. At Punta el Custodio, we get our electricity from the CFE substation in San Blas about 25 miles to our north, so we are literally at the End of the Line. The communities to our south, beginning with nearby Otates, receive their power from Las Varas.

Cost and Billing

CFE bills on a bi-monthly basis. The bills arrive at the little grocery store at the top of the cobbled road going up to the highway from the beach; the store’s owner, Marta González, is a CFE agent. Our property manager pays the bills and charges each of us accordingly.

Did you know that Mexican domestic-use electricity is billed on a graduated scale, like the U. S. income tax? The more electricity you use, the higher the cost per kilowatt hour (kwh). The first 150 kwh per month are billed at about $0.05 US, the next 150 kwh at about $0.09 US, the next 500 at about $0.17 US and, if you use more than 800 kwh a month, about $0.23. If you fall into the highest category, “Domesticas de Alto Consumo,” you are stuck at that pricing level for six months, even if you use less than 800 kwh/month for those months. Nice trick!

To make matters even more confusing, in addition to your consumption level, CFE pricing also factors in time of year and prevailing temperature. If you’re a bean farmer, and run, say, an irrigation pump, you qualify for about a 50% discount. Commercial users, such as factories, pay the highest rates. The net effect of this apparent crazy-quilt of rates is to subsidize the smallest users of domestic power, as well as agricultural users, at the expense of large businesses and residential energy hogs, like most Gringo and Canadiense ex-pats, with our big refrigerators, air conditioning, pool pumps (and a few electric pool heaters), accent lighting, and so forth.

Criminal Problems

Most of us in Mexico have experienced periods of brownouts and blackouts. Our little community of Punta el Custodio is served by a three-phase high-voltage distribution system, consisting of three cables strung over a series of concrete poles which run along the highway between San Blas and Platanitos, and then up a rocky road to our Gatehouse. A good part of the cable run, however, is through mangrove swamp and jungle, sometimes as much as a mile from the highway.

When one of the three lines is down, we have a brownout, with low voltage in some of our household circuits, and normal voltage in the other circuits. When two or three lines are down, we have no power at all.

While many of these interruptions are brief, ranging from a few seconds to an hour (probably related to work along the line, when power must be interrupted for various reasons), some last hours and even a day or more, causing not only discomfort and inconvenience, but spoilage of perishable foodstuffs that require refrigeration.

Foul weather causes power outages by wind damage to the lines, with branches or falling trees causing short circuits or cable breakages. Lightning strikes are also a major cause of damage and large birds roosting on the lines can sometimes cause outages (and carbonized birds).

But recently there have been major outages due to theft of copper high tension cables. Some of these outages have lasted more than 24 hours. With the world price of copper approaching $4.00 US per pound, copper cable is an attractive item for crooks. One can find numerous shops along the main highway down to Puerto Vallarta, with crudely-painted signs proclaiming, “I buy gold. I buy silver. I buy copper. I pay the best prices.” (The gold and silver are merely a smokescreen: these guys are buying copper.)

Also along the main highway are equally numerous little stands selling bright ornamental copper pots and basins, some the size of large laundry tubs. One does not need an advanced degree in criminology to figure out that the purloined copper cable is being “recycled” locally — a real Shot in the Arm, economically speaking, for the numerous underemployed roadside communities. Very ecologically and economically sound! A local army of coppersmiths gains rewarding employment, CFE workers get paid lots of overtime (and so do the contractors), CFEhappily passes on all the costs to its more opulent customers via an elastic billing system…So everyone is happy, right? Not!

The cable thieves usually strike just before sunset, while they still have enough daylight to do their dirty work, with darkness quickly falling to conceal their getaway. They steal anywhere between 150 and 2,500 meters of cables. The crooks use a home-made insulated high-tension fuse puller to disconnect the lines they wish to steal. They then bring the wire to the ground, quickly rolling it up into loops that will fit in their vehicle, and take off in the dark. Their favorite part of the line has been about 4 km north of Platanitos, at the El Espino turnoff. These guys are so good that one cannot help but wonder whether they are former (or current) CFE workers. Or, if not pros, perhaps they lug off any electrocuted buddies in the truck along with the cable, rather than leaving them to the buzzards.

In early February, 2012, the Nayarit police apprehended a gang of three copper robbers who had been causing blackouts up and down the Nayarit coast for a number of months. After only 10 hours in custody, they “confessed” to a total of 10 copper cable robberies and eagerly provided the name of the fence they had been selling to. Here is a photo of them and their loot posed in front of the Nayarit State police department’s armored car, known as “The Rock,” which apparently serves no other purpose besides serving as a backdrop for perp photos of all sorts, as no one has ever seen this vehicle on the road. Note that the three unfortunate prisoners (whose bruises do not show in the photo) are holding a home-make wooden high-tension fuse puller (professional models have yellow fiberglass handles).

The Arrow Points toward the Scene of the Crime

After the most recent theft, a group of us drove off around two in the afternoon to find Scene of the Crime. Going north towards El Llano, we found a fluorescent orange arrow spray-painted on the pavement, pointing down the rutted road to Lemoncitos Beach.

This was probably put there by the CFE scouting party, to show which way the repair crew should go, so we decided to have a look for ourselves. We soon came upon an old farmer heaving large rocks out of his mango field into the roadway (always in need of large rocks). We stopped to ask him whether he had seen any trucks going down the road the day before.

“Si. Ayer antes de la puesta del sol pasaron unos tipos en camioneta. Con escalera.” [“Yesterday before sunset some guys passed by in a truck. They had a ladder.”]

These were the thieves.

“Y hoy por la mañana pasaron otros tipos, sin escalera.” [And this morning some other guys passed by, without a ladder.”]

These were the guys from CFE.

We thanked the old man for this intelligence; he resumed methodically heaving rocks into the road as we continued further into the jungle. We found the cable already repaired, but for some reason, the power was not restored until 7 PM.

By stealing cable near the end of the line, the fewest people are pissed off, effectively blunting any civic rage or reaction. And who cares about those rich Norteamericanos up on the hill anyway? So they might miss a nightly session in the Jacuzzi for want of power to run the jets. Because the population density is greater to our South, and because those lines run in plain sight along the highway, as opposed through unpopulated jungle and mangrove, the copper thieves avoid them (though they did make off with Turtle Beach’s costly step-down transformer, which was only a dozen yards from the highway).

“Theft outages” have a mandatory overnight duration, as the CFE crews cannot work in the dark. At daybreak, the damage is located, and crews of local contract workers, with just a few CFE guys to deal with the dangerous stuff, swarm over the area. It sometimes takes several hours, however, for the CFE crews to find the break.

Aluminum High Tension Cable on the Ground.

New cable is draped over the pole stringers, which have pulleys except on the first and last poles, where the cables are anchored. A truck-mounted winch is used to tighten the cables using a system of blocks and tackles, the replacement cables are connected to the grid at both ends, the circuit breakers are activated, and voila! we have power again… at least until the next theft. The new cables are aluminum, with a scrap price of about $1.00 US per pound, the same price as scrap lead.

 Aluminum High Tension Cable on the Ground.

Aluminum High Tension Cable on the Ground.

With thefts occurring almost every other day, it seemed as if the thieves would keep it up until all the copper line between San Blas and Platanitos was stolen… or until they got caught. One evening, just before sunset, the lights went out again.

 CFE Truck in the Jungle. This truck has a winch for tightening the cables onceon the poles.

CFE Truck in the Jungle. This truck has a winch for tightening the cables onceon the poles.

CFE Truck in the Jungle. This truck has a winch for tightening the cables onceon the poles.

Were the thieves caught? Reports are conflicting. Some say they were; some say they were not. In any case, the thefts continue right up to January, 2012. And what, pray, would be so difficult about apprehending the thieves? The moment the lights go out, the police are notified: they place a roadblock at either end of the cable run, stop all vehicles and look for cut-up copper cable.

But, no. This does not occur. As a general rule, in Mexico the police are the last to be called in the event of a crime, as those who call in a crime are often the first to be arrested.

 CFE Local Contractors Laying Aluminum Cable Through the Jungle. (One of them did not want to be in the photo…Could he be one of the copper thieves?)

CFE Local Contractors Laying Aluminum Cable Through the Jungle. (One of them did not want to be in the photo…Could he be one of the copper thieves?)

 CFE Experts Hanging High Tension Cable: They Don’t Leave this Job to the Contractors.

CFE Experts Hanging High Tension Cable: They Don’t Leave this Job to the Contractors.

CFE Local Contractors Laying Aluminum Cable Through the Jungle. (One of them did not want to be in the photo…Could he be one of the copper thieves?)

CFE Experts Hanging High Tension Cable: They Don’t Leave this Job to the Contractors.

Local Solution

In the meantime, we’ve acquired generators to keep us going during the outages. In the case of Casa Colibri, we took a Honda 6.5KW gasoline generator and converted it to propane, so that we can run for 28 hours on one 30 kg cylinder. Propane is handily delivered to us by Global Gas, in contrast to gasoline which we must buy at the nearest Pemex station 12 miles away, in 20-liter containers. Then we must siphon it into the gas tank of the generator, which will run only seven hours on a tankful. Plus, propane never goes stale and never gums up the carburetor, like gasoline. Propane rules!

 Generator Hooked up to a 30 kg Propane Cylinder: Runs for 28 Hours! Green Wire is a Ground Wire.

Generator Hooked up to a 30 kg Propane Cylinder: Runs for 28 Hours! Green Wire is a Ground Wire.

Generator Hooked up to a 30 kg Propane Cylinder: Runs for 28 Hours! Green Wire is a Ground Wire.

Since installing the Little Honda, we went Whole Hog and bought a huge 48 kW Kohler propane-fired unit that serves eight houses. This baby runs on a GM 5.2 liter automotive engine — the same model that GM used in Chevrolet cars. We have a 2,000 liter propane tank. The Kohler can run about six days on one tank of liquid propane