Let There Be Light

A long-suffering border colonia powers up with renewable energy.
by Published on
Patricia Gonzalez

For a decade, the onset of the stifling summer heat in South Texas meant it was time for Patricia Gonzalez and her three children to drag their mattresses out of their cramped home to sleep outside. Like their neighbors, the Gonzalezes didn’t have electricity. No fans or air conditioning broke the heat. An ice chest kept the food and medication for her kids’ respiratory ailments cool. When daylight faded, she and her three children did schoolwork by candlelight (Gonzalez was studying for a GED). In the summer, they would sweat; in the winter, they would shiver.

For 36 years, the people of La Presa, a dusty neighborhood set among prickly pear cactus and squat huisache trees 10 miles south of Laredo, have lived without potable water, sewer connections, drainage, and properly maintained roads. Water for drinking and cooking is hauled in by truck and stored in large, plastic barrels. Septic systems often consist of little more than a cesspool behind the house. Most of the 350 residents in this colonia-shorthand for a substandard development built in an unincorporated area without basic services-aren’t connected to the electric grid. Instead, they get by with portable gas generators, electricity shared among neighbors via a daisy chain of extension cords, power poached from the grid, or nothing at all.

For 36 years, the people of La Presa, a dusty, sweltering colonia south of Laredo, have lived without electricity, potable water, or an adequate sewage system.

Now an innovative experiment has brought power to a dozen lucky residents of La Presa, including Gonzalez. By the end of the year, all 100 homes in the colonia will be hooked up to a “microgrid” provided by a partnership between a for-profit power company and the state. If the project works, it could be applied to other colonias in Texas, which has more of these substandard communities than any other state. According to the Texas Secretary of State, there are 2,300 colonias in Texas that more than 400,000 people call home.

Texas has proved fertile ground for colonias because of its historically lax regulations on development, a scarcity of affordable housing, and appalling poverty. In pursuit of a fast dollar, developers built without regard to industry norms. Legislative fixes to stem colonia development have paradoxically made the situation worse by making it impossible for substandard communities to join the power grid before other improvements are put in place. The rules have forced residents and those who want to aid them to be creative about providing pressing needs. Thus was born the La Presa power project.

“I think this is something that-at least on a temporary basis-we can look at using as a model for those hard-core cases where [colonias] lack basic utilities,” said Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose district includes La Presa.

The story of why La Presa has gone so long without essential services begins with the community’s founding father, Cecil McDonald,“a notorious developer responsible for a number of struggling neighborhoods in Webb County, including El Cenizo and Rio Bravo.

In the early 1970s, McDonald crudely carved La Presa out of cheap, hardscrabble land, skirting accepted building standards along the way. He marketed the five-acre tracts-called ranchitos-to poor families looking to lock up their piece of the American dream. Promises were made that services would arrive, but they never did. McDonald died in June, but his legacy remains largely intact.

“Even now, after his death, I would say his handiwork is still there,” Cuellar said.

Citizens of La Presa and government authorities have spent decades trying to clean up the problems that McDonald left behind. Part of McDonald’s handiwork is a plat that is an utter mess. Property boundaries are ill-defined or even overlap, creating huge hurdles for the residents and authorities trying to straighten things out.

Hilario Martinez

McDonald liked to brag. “By the time there is an official local action or state legislation is enacted, the colonia will likely be completely sold,” he wrote in a 10-step “recipe” for colonia creation published in a 1998 book, Colonias and Public Policy in Texas and Mexico: Urbanization by Stealth, by Peter Ward The developer’s avarice was such that he tried to put a tollbooth on the small road leading to La Presa.

His brazenness eventually caught up with him. In the 1990s, then-Attorney General Dan Morales made McDonald a primary target in an aggressive campaign to prosecute colonia developers. “[McDonald] became the poster child or the villain,” Ward said. “They nailed him really.”

Under the legal onslaught, McDonald sought protection for his real estate firm in bankruptcy court. In 1995, a bankruptcy judge approved a settlement plan that used McDonald’s assets to refinance mortgages, pave streets, and build water and wastewater infrastructure in El Cenizo and Rio Bravo.

Although the court decreed that McDonald make a proper plat of La Presa, he never got around to it. With the help from the Laredo office of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, the community managed to squeeze $106,000 out of the settlement to help fund the re-platting process, but it wasn’t enough.

The toppling of McDonald prevented him from developing new colonias. But it did little to change La Presa’s fortunes. Then, in an absurd twist, the state actually added to the community’s hardship.

Hilario Martinez is prosperous by La Presa standards. He works as a transportation consultant and heads the La Presa community organization. His bright, clean, two-story house would not be out of place in a typical working-class neighborhood in Laredo. He lays out the community’s needs with polished precision, broken only by a flash of anger when he recalls his discovery five years ago that he was barred from having electricity. When Martinez moved to La Presa, he installed, at his own expense, the utility poles, wires, and transformer necessary to connect his home to nearby electric lines. For a few days he enjoyed power. Then an employee of the utility company came and shut him off.

“When they cut the wires, they clipped my wings,” Martinez said.

Martinez’s experience illustrates one of the catch-22s of state law. In the 1990s, the Texas Legislature passed a series of reforms aimed at stopping the proliferation of colonias. The laws prohibited colonia residents from obtaining electric service until they had water and wastewater. But water and wastewater cannot be installed until the community is properly platted, a long, tedious, and expensive process that can drag on for years or even decades. Residents with electric service at the time of the law’s passage were “grandfathered”-they could keep their electricity. But if the property changed hands, the right to power was lost. Lawmakers hoped to make colonia life unattractive to potential newcomers, but people came anyway. As a result, the state has banned thousands of people from obtaining essential services.

“There are places out there that have meter loops-they’re empty-there are transformers within 15 feet of the house, but they can’t connect,” said Dean Schneider, an engineer with Texas A&M University’s Experimental Engineering Station.

To residents of La Presa, the policy is absurd. “The longest it takes in Mexico for them to get basic services in new colonias is two years, even on properties that the people have appropriated without paying for them,” said Martinez with a rueful laugh. “Here, where everything is done legally, so much time passes.”

Cuellar, who as a state senator was instrumental in passing the reform laws, said, “The intent was to stop the growth of the colonias, and we tried to come up with, quote-unquote, a compromise. The problem is, you still have some people-I don’t want to say in limbo-but who are still caught in a difficult situation.”

The state doesn’t have an exact count of colonias in limbo, but the Texas Water Development Board estimates that 442-with a population of almost 63,000-in the six most-populous border counties, including Webb, still lack water and wastewater. Statewide, the water board estimates that an additional $885 million will be required to fill the water and wastewater needs of colonias. There is no estimate of those without electricity, but in Webb County hundreds of families still lack power in colonias spread all over the county.

The unenviable task of denying colonia residents utilities in Webb County falls to Rhonda Tiffin, the county planning director. “It’s not an easy job to be the Wicked Witch of Webb County,” she said. “We deal with the victims. We impose the rules on the victims.”

Last year, Tiffin took her case to the Legislature. She and border lawmakers sought a simple legislative fix: Rescind the ban on utilities for existing colonias. The bill, authored by Rio Grande City Democratic Rep. Ryan Guillen, who represents dozens of colonias, including La Presa, sailed through the Legislature. But on the last day of the session, Republicans torpedoed the legislation, complaining it was an affront to private property rights. In particular, they were unhappy with a provision that gave border counties zoning authority, a tool the counties have long sought to regulate development. “How long is it going take before we don’t have any freedom to use our land as we choose?” asked Sugar Land Republican Rep. Charlie Howard.

The La Presa power project cleverly cuts through this knot. Because the project is technically temporary and the “microgrid” terminates at a RV-style outlet outside each home-rather than connecting directly-the system skirts the connection prohibition.

In the scorching hot summer of 2005, frustrated with the lack of government action, about 40 La Presa residents descended on the office of then-Webb County Judge Louis Bruni. They demanded that the county do something to speed the arrival of basic services, especially electricity. “This is a matter of life and death; these children don’t even have a fan,” Patricia Gonzalez said at a press conference at the time. “What’s it going to take-a child dying of heat stroke?”

The county officials complained that the developers and the state were to blame. The commissioners passed a resolution calling on state authorities to declare a “local state of emergency” and asked for a change in state laws prohibiting services. Neither happened, but the outcry did reach Cuellar’s ears. The congressman secured about $300,000 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restart the platting process, which had petered out. And he promised to look at ways to bring electricity to La Presa in the interim.

A renewable energy source

The basic idea for the power project struck him on a trip to Iraq when he saw the portable generators troops rely on, Cuellar said. The inspiration led to collaboration among the Texas State Energy Conservation Office, the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, the Secretary of State, and Xtreme Power Inc., a small energy outfit headquartered near Austin that specializes in efficient power storage. The group decided to put a novel idea into practice: providing temporary electricity to colonias using renewable power distributed over a “microgrid.” The conservation office has invested $600,000 so far.

In this decidedly low-tech environment of makeshift homes and jerry-rigged amenities, the power system stands out. The power plant, if it can be called that, consists of a trailer parked on the corner of someone’s property, loaded with super-efficient batteries and a generator that runs on biodiesel or ethanol. Inside the trailer, a computer monitors the power as it flows to each home, sending the data in real-time to Xtreme’s headquarters in Kyle. Perched on top of the trailer is a panel of photovoltaic cells that capture solar energy. A 30-foot-tall wind turbine whirs nearby. Biofuel, wind, and solar work like three legs of a stool, providing a continuous supply of energy, about 2 kilowatts to each home. Each setup costs between $50,000 and $100,000.

“When you have sun, you sometimes don’t have wind, and vice versa,” said Carlos Coe, CEO of Xtreme Power. “They’re pretty good renewable counterparts. The generator that’s running on biofuels is really there to address whatever the shortfall is” from the wind and solar.

Some residents are just glad to have electricity; others like the idea that it’s renewable. “For me, really, green energy would be much better than established types of energy for a simple reason,” Martinez said. “Green energy is something that can be obtained naturally from natural resources.”

Each trailer can serve 10 to 15 homes; by the end of this year, enough trailers will be spread around La Presa to generate electricity for all 100 homes. This is the first project of its kind, Coe said. The World Bank, he added, has expressed interest in deploying the system in developing nations. Cuellar is trying to secure congressional earmarks to expand the program.

The power project in La Presa perhaps points to fresh-and green-thinking about how to resolve problems in colonias. “The U.S. government-federal and state-still see the colonias as a residual problem, a dysfunctional problem, rather than a development that requires much more positive thinking and creative thinking,” said author Ward. One solution, he said, is the “greening” of housing policies for colonias. By Ward’s estimation, the state is still $500 million short on funds to ret
ofit colonias with water and wastewat
r infrastructure. Renewable technology and energy-efficient approaches could fill the gap at much lower cost. He suggested the government encourage the use of low-tech, green technologies such as water harvesting, septic systems that recycle gray water, and solar-powered devices.

On a small scale, the conservation office has already been experimenting with these ideas. For example, the agency funded a solar-powered water-purification system in the Colorado Acres colonia in Webb County. Using a reverse-osmosis process, the system can produce 14,000 gallons of exceptionally clean water each hour, enough for 280 people.

At the La Presa project, questions remain as to its viability. So far, the electricity has been free. Soon it will move to a prepaid scheme in which families purchase blocks of power at a retail outlet, such as Western Union. The rates-set by Xtreme-are expected to be between 20 and 40 cents per kilowatt-hour, or 25 percent to 150 percent more expensive than regular rates in Laredo.

In the end, the power project is an experiment that could succeed or fail on the basis of raw economics.

“Can we reach economies of scale?” asks Schneider, the engineer. “That is, can we make electricity efficient enough to be worth it for the residents down in the Valley and at the same time provide a return on investment for someone who chooses to invest in these machines?” He adds: “Where it goes from here is up to private investment.”

For communities like La Presa, which have languished on the margins for years, such academic questions are bound to provoke skepticism.

“If we count all the promises of all the people who have come through here, there would be more promises than God has made to all humanity,” Martinez said.

Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.