By Erick Falcón*

With summer temperatures surpassing 122° F, Mario Pavón was the only one smiling in the midst of such heat when his theme park opened.

It would never have occurred to anyone but him to have located such a project outdoors in the hottest region of the country. But today, four years after its inauguration, the park has shown that it’s not just any theme park, but a training center where visitors can make use of the intense heat to learn about everything solar, even how to cool their houses.

Perhaps it’s not exactly what aficionados of amusement parks such as Disneyland would like, but it does have another strength. The educational atmosphere of the Alternative Energy Theme Park promotes a civic awareness in Mexicali’s residents regarding the potential for renewable energy technologies. It marks the road to a new stage in human history: the transition to a society based in sustainability.

“We are living both in the age of the Internet and of the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energies,” says Pavón, recognizing the presence of a persistent level of public skepticism 20 years after he made his first foray into the renewable energy industry. “We are living through something similar to what our grandparents experienced when the automobile began to supplant the horse.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Pavón is himself living the reality depicted by 19th Century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who maintained that truth passes through three stages: ridicule, violent opposition and finally acceptance as being self-evident.

Even though he conceived of the project in 2005, it wasn’t until 2007 that the engineer managed to get support from individuals and associations in Mexicali to make it happen.

Learning about concepts such as thermal charges and bioclimatic improvements in construction perhaps doesn’t sound very interesting, but in a city where the average temperature is 86° F for nine months out of the year, it makes sense to learn how to use the most abundant natural resource: 360 days of sun.

The Energy House as attraction.

The park’s most curious and popular attraction is the Energy House.  When a group of students exits, the most enthusiastic face has to be that of the teacher.  After all, Pavón has shown him a simple secret for duplicating energy savings with his own fridge.

What may seem to be a just a makeshift solution is, in reality, understanding how a refrigerator works.  If the appliance is closed up in a small space, the system has to work harder to vent the warm air and it ends up consuming more energy to reduce its temperature, the engineer explains.

“This is a bioclimatic house, ideal for if you want to build in Mexicali. Here we have ideas like that seen with the refrigerator, with a space behind it in the wall so that air can freely circulate, thus using up to 30% less energy,” he notes.

The house has all of the urban amenities, but with a focus on sustainability.  A one kilowatt per hour generating system and bioclimatic plans are part of the lesson.  Nothing like the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but the place presents an opportunity that can’t be beat to generate an energy culture among youth.

“It has been a place used as a point of reference for renewable energy education.  In one hour, a child can learn what he or she might take five years to learn in elementary or middle school,” Pavón states.  “Even engineers check this place out.”

Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness
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The theme park sets a good example: it generates 70% of its own electricity. (Photo: Wilfrido Pérez)

Mexicali's Solar Park
Why it's not crazy to depend on our most abundant energy resource

Training courses designed for business people, officials and the general public are offered at the education center. Energy Administration, Environmental Education and Bioclimatic Architecture are some of the topics covered.  Additionally, a number of products, such as fruit dried in the park’s solar ovens, are available for purchase.

“The vision was to cater to business people and others who needed to learn about alternative energy, whether on a commercial or industrial level. However, we decided also to make a social contribution so that children and youth could visit the theme park for free,” Pavón explains.

The park also offers guided tours, meetings and ecology camps for groups of 30 children, where they learn the facts, skills and attitudes needed to be able to contribute to environmental conservation. “We are convinced that it is through play that we will reach the place where young children are learning these lessons in a way that is most meaningful to them,” adds Pavón

The park generates 70% of the energy that it consumes.  But the rest doesn’t come free.  The annual cost to operate the park is more than $83,000, which covers salaries, maintenance and operation of the various modules.

To date, Pavón has been able to deal with the financial obstacles, thanks to the non-profit agency that runs the park and that was created and is administered by his business Energías Alternas.

Popular support necessary to drive educational project

At the end of the 1980’s, Pavón became an independent businessman when he created the company Energías Alternas (Alternative Energies), that sold and installed photovoltaic systems for ranches, remote sites in the mountains and some private homes in Mexicali.

“However,” he says, “we realized that it wasn’t catching on because of a lack of training. People weren’t being educated about scientific and environmental ideas, much less about renewable energies.”

The turning point didn’t come until 2001. At an industrial expo called AgroBaja, Pavón noted that his booth had generated great enthusiasm among industrialists, businessmen and visitors.  The idea might work out, after all, he thought.

“Now everyone wants to get involved in green issues, in energy issues, but many are just focused on the price of the kilowatt-hour, and don’t think about how the production of  electricity from fossil fuels is at the heart of the debate about climate change,” he comments.

The park has 15 educational modules, like the Energy House.  It has a greenhouse as well as demonstration areas for tools and household appliances like water heaters and solar dehydrators.  Pavón plans to add an additional fifteen modules once the site has better financial backing.

Renewable Energy Culture Favored

Due to the innovative nature of his idea, Pavón received an honorable mention in 2008 in the Ecology Merit Prize awarded by Semarnat (The Environmental and Natural Resources Secretary).  But developing a renewable energy culture has been the most rewarding, says Pavón.

“Housing developers here in Mexicali, for example, have used our concepts for houses as a point of departure with, for example, the separation of gray and black water and natural ventilation.

Even the generation of energy by the photovoltaic array in the Energy House is monitored and recorded and made available on the internet here.

Pavón asserts that the general public needs to know more about the issue of energy, not just for economic reasons, but in order to educate themselves about the need to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels used by the nation’s energy plants, especially those run by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE).

Just three coal-powered plants in the country, Petacalco, Carbón II and Río Escondido each year generate almost 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a green house gas.  According to the Commission on Environmental Cooperation of North America, this is more than a quarter of all of the country’s CO2 emissions.

According to a report by the Senate, in May CFE confirmed that its use of coal for electricity production will increase almost 90% between 2008 and 2018, from 10.7 to 20.3 million tons.

Therefore, says Pavón, “we have to educate the people that they aren’t paying their bill in pesos, but in the consumption of kilowatts per hour.  They have to be taught what a kilowatt actually costs, including how much contamination is produced for that amount of energy.”

*Winner, 2010 Latin American Environmental Journalism Award, Reuters News Agency and International Union for Environmental Conservation (UICN)